To be able to overcome failure, often one must transform one’s view of what failure is. Is it really something to be feared? Are the consequences of failure as dire as we frequently imagine they will be? What is the relationship between success and failure? This task of re-envisioning failure was at the heart of the Center’s January 25th Dialogue Nights gathering, called “Failing Forward: Making Your 2019 Resolutions Stick.” It was the first Dialogue Nights of 2019, and the tenth overall.
In welcoming the more than fifty Boston-area university students and young professionals in attendance, Center program manager Lillian I shared a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that pointed to the power of confronting failure. “People tend to grow fearful when they taste failure, face a daunting challenge or fall ill,” he said. “Yet that is precisely the time to become even bolder. Those who are victors at heart are the greatest of all champions.” With this quote in mind, Lillian I and the Center program staff led the gathering in a series of dialogical activities aimed at deconstructing our assumptions about failure and inspiring everyone to take more risks in the future.
How to Fail Forward
After an initial icebreaker activity, everyone engaged in paired discussion on a question challenging our self-limiting thought processes: “What is the one thing you would do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Participants then viewed a two-part video. The first part featured young Bostonians reflecting on their ideas about failure. These reflections were followed by a brief smart phone video clip by Will Smith that he posted to his Instagram page exhorting each of us to “fail early, fail often, and fail forward” – this last providing a key inspiration for the evening’s theme.
Next, everyone engaged in an activity called “Failure Toss,” designed to further question assumptions we hold about success and failure. To open, each participant wrote three instances when they failed on the left side of an index card and the wisdom gained on the right side. Then, having torn the card in two, they were given four options: 1) crumple and throw out the failures, 2) throw out the wisdom, 3) keep both the successes and failures, or 4) toss them both.
During discussion, participants made the case for three of the options. Many chose to unburden themselves and toss the failure and keep the wisdom. Some said to keep both, with the failures serving as motivation or as a way to see how they live on in the wisdom. Then there was the option of simply tossing both, since, said one person, they live on inside of us, regardless.
From here, the evening moved to small group engagement with the implications of another forward-looking quote from Daisaku Ikeda: “The worst mistake you can make is to give up on yourself and stop challenging yourself for fear of failure. Keep moving with a firm eye on the future, telling yourself, ‘I’ll start from today! I’ll start afresh from now, from this very moment.’”*
Asked to consider why we fear failure, participants identified some common sense points. First, is the unarguable point that failure is no fun at all and makes us feel bad, not least because it can feel like we just wasted our time. Also key is that failure compels us to compare ourselves with others and fear their opinions of us, a source of nearly endless anxiety and crippling doubt, which in turn makes failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet, when we think it through, said participants, the positive dimensions are clear. The flip side of fearing what others think is that often our failures encourage us to reach out to others in our communities and to people who have had similar experiences. Strengthening existing bonds and forging new ones in this manner is unequivocally a positive outcome. The other main benefit is learning about yourself in the process of failing. We can learn what we’re good at or what we value or what it takes to grow.
This portion of Dialogue Nights concluded with participants imagining what they would tell their futures selves when they fail to achieve a particular goal. One of the key messages, said one participant, would be that when you look back on all your failures you will be able to see that it’s okay to fail and though it may seem that way, it’s not the end of the world when it happens. Another would urge their future self to pay attention to how cause and effect works and to draw lessons from past failures that will aid in the more effective pursuit of goals going forward.
Perseverance, Hope, and Explorations Large and Small
After a brief closing small group dialogue session on the one goal they would like to tackle this year, Center program director Kevin Maher offered a few closing remarks, including a retelling of the story of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who, in 1911, led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. This great achievement was the result of first suffering a great disappointment. Amundsen had actually been deep into preparation for an attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole when he learned that an American explorer had just achieved that goal. Undaunted, Amundsen successfully shifted his attention to the South Pole. Fifteen years later, in 1926, he reached the North Pole, becoming the first to reach both poles. Instead of admitting defeat, he achieved not one but two unmatched feats of exploration.
Of the qualities demonstrated by Amundsen, said Maher, most central were perseverance and the hope that fuels it. Our 2019 goals and resolutions are likely a tad less ambitious than polar exploration, but these qualities will nevertheless stand us in good stead. As Maher explained: “A key ingredient in challenging our goals and facing or embracing failure is to maintain and foster hope. It is through hope that we find our inner motivation… . Fueled by hope we can appreciate our growth and see failure for what it is – an opportunity.”
* At the end of the evening each participant received a postcard with this quote on it, with the idea that it could be kept for inspiration or mailed to a friend.