Mistakes are Cool: Three Ways to Fail More Productively

I spent a lot of years saying no to God about writing. It wasn’t necessarily in a defiant way, but instead, like when you ask your kid to do something and they get busy doing something else. I just didn’t take the time to explore what was tugging at me. I knew it was going to be hard, I knew it was going to be public and, I knew once I started I had to be committed. That was a lot to process so, I just took about fifteen years to get around to it.

I don’t share this delay with shame. I don’t think it does us much good to live in the regret of what could have been. I share it because I know there are some of you who have wanted to step into something and haven’t done it because it’s scary. We worry about what others will think of us (or what we will think of ourselves.) We worry we won’t be successful or it won’t be worth it. We worry we will fail.

So, to that end, here’s my gift to you today: You are going to fail.

When we step into something new, that’s when we are the worst at it. In fact, these “failures” are an inherent, valuable part of the process of becoming more of who God designed us to be. Part of this is because our brains need time to learn. And, I suspect, part of this is because God doesn’t want us building our own personal towers of Babel. Failure is the necessary part of the process that keeps us humble and makes us better. And, if practiced authentically, our failures can be a gift to other people because it makes us accessibly human — giving other people permission to be human also.

So what does it look like to fail in productive, healthy, life-giving ways? Here are some suggestions.

Fail Better: This one is easy-peasy, at least in concept. It just means learning from your mistakes and trying not to make the same ones again. It means making a quarter-turn in your approach to see if that works better this time. It means celebrating doing less poorly than you did before because, if you do that enough times, eventually you will end up doing it well. “Failing better” is often just the natural outcome of practice. We get better each time we try.

Fail Forward: This term isn’t mine. Leadership guru John Maxwell has an entire book written on this concept. Failing forward means failing without activating the self-protective response to quit or retreat. These failures are opportunities to gather information and reaffirm our value and purpose. When we think about failures as necessary steps forward, rather than back, it helps us keep moving.

Fail Face Up: Failing face up means being willing to be seen. This is harder. Many people have begun a new thing in the quiet of their mind or the closed door of a room, and never made it out. One of the most important ways to fail is in the presence of other people — but not just any people. Not everyone earns the right to an opinion. But, for those who love you, for those who mentor you, for those who are “in the arena” with you, being real is essential. Without allowing others to witness of our failures, we risk the quick death that comes with being a people-pleaser — and nobody ever gets anywhere that way.

So, there you go fellow humans. My fifteen year siren call was writing, and I took a darn long time worrying more about the dangers than the joy it ultimately brought me. Mistakes and failure still meet me every day, but I know now I wouldn’t trade it. Onward, brave soldier. Onward toward “failure.” It’s totally worth it.

PS – In a “fail face up” disclosure, this entire post is an example. I began writing it months ago and gave up because I couldn’t figure out a way forward. Then, yesterday after hours spent on another article, someone I trust affirmed that piece was not ready to be shared. Many hours, some self-pitied whimpering, and over seven hundred words later, I am better for it. Just wanted to give you a glimpse into the life of this human, who falls on her face all the time. Come join me.

Photo by Ricardo Viana on Unsplash, used with permission

2 thoughts on “Mistakes are Cool: Three Ways to Fail More Productively”

  1. The cozy comfort zone is so very cozy. So is standing on the end of a diving board. A perfect dive is not required. Get my swim fins. 1,2,3….Jump! Great article, Anne.


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