Some thoughts on failure, stillness and achievement

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 6, 2009 

Thomas Edison tried over 10,000 times before he perfected the invention of the light bulb. Far from getting discouraged, however, he embraced his failures. It was in repeated failures that he learned the lessons that eventually enabled him to get it right.

The past few months have seen business failure after business failure. Companies once the darlings of the marketplace have gone into bankruptcy or in other ways have ceased to exist. Folks are out of work, homes lost, carefully-laid plans interrupted or demolished.

In times like this, we need to be reminded of something auto pioneer Henry Ford once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Or as cosmetics icon Mary Kay Ash put it, “For every failure, there’s an alternative course of action. You just have to find it. When you come to a roadblock, take a detour.” She also said, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.”

Yet, so many live in morbid fear of failure. I think this fear of failure is a mindset imposed by some on children from their earliest days: protect the kids from failure, otherwise they might feel bad or lose self-esteem, and we certainly don’t want that to happen.

The consequence, of course, is that when such “protected” kids grow up and meet the real world where failure is an everyday occurrence, they don’t have the resources for coping with it. They become wounded souls, and thinking that life has ended with their first setback, they head down that dangerous slope of self-pity that too often ends in self-destruction.

There are others who take quite a different approach. “Never let a good failure go to waste,” is a popular motto among these kinds of people. (A current paraphrase of that is, “Don’t let a good recession go to waste.”)

People like theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, world-famous for his research into cosmology, quantum gravity and black holes, and for his runaway best-seller, A Brief History of Time. Here is a man struck down with ALS at the start of his adult life and left almost totally paralyzed. But such a failure of health forced him to focus his keen mind on some of the most profound mysteries of the universe. He refused to let a good failure go to waste.

I’m told that the average millionaire has gone into bankruptcy three-and-a-half times, but they eventually succeed because they live the truth of an old Chinese proverb: “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.”

Management guru Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, is a strong believer in the importance of failure. Risk-taking in product design and management style may at times lead to failures, but it’s out of those failures that success is born.

In this regard, Tom loves to quote hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

I hear echoes of this in the commencement speech J.K Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, delivered at Harvard University in 2008: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

But successful failure – also referred to as “failing forward” – does make demands on us. We certainly cannot be lazy or lacking in determination. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes, and not be indifferent to their consequences.

And most importantly, as I see it, we must be spiritually centred.

Norman Charles is a Cochrane folk philosopher and poet. He shared with me recently some of his lines that, I believe, directly bear on coping with trials and failures. It’s about seeking out the silence and finding the still, small Voice, he says. It’s about being centred in the still point:

All that is needed
Creator has provided.
Reach out and grasp
the gifts of healing and blessing
which come from the God within
. . . and without.

Enter the silence
and hear the still, small Voice. . . .

Look into the eye of the storm
and seek out the stillness
in the Void
at the innermost
sanctuary of
the whirlwind
where the
Great Mystery
yet unfolds.

With our hearts and souls so anchored in stillness, then, we can embrace without fear the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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