Over the past semester in the Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation, we have learned to “fail fast and fail forward.” I’ll be honest, when I first heard that, I was horrified and uncomfortable. I couldn’t stand the thought of failure, especially when it came to me failing. I was always taught that failure was never an option. It couldn’t happen if you tried your hardest, didn’t give up, and had a good attitude. Successful people don’t fail. They are inherently talented and gifted. We sometimes hear stories about the difficult beginnings of successful people. We know that Steve Jobs started Apple in a garage. We know Oprah was fired from her first job. We know Tina Fey used to work at the YMCA. We know Jay Z used to be a drug dealer. We know about the rough beginnings of these people, and we know about their successful accomplishments. We rarely, however, hear about their setbacks in between.
Failure is a process. We don’t hear about the entire process in motivational speeches, talk show television programming, and memoirs. It’s framed as an arrow pointing up. In reality, the process goes up and down, back around, reverses, flips upside down, shoots up, baselines, falls back down again, and heads up. We rarely hear about all of these moments in the lives of our role models. All we know is that their lives are better than they were before. We have two data points, the beginning, and the present. This contributes to the stigmatization of failure and struggle.
I think that the reason I am so afraid of failure is because before this semester, it had never happened to me before. Sure, I had messed up before, gotten some poor grades, and struck out in intramural baseball, but I had never truly failed. I had never invested so much time and effort into something, only for it to come crashing down, leaving me to wonder what went wrong and how I could ever bounce back. I never experienced this feeling until this semester. It came at a perfect time – we were learning about failure in class, and I had experienced a major failure in my personal life. I felt worthless. I felt exhausted. I felt like I would never succeed ever again. I had always considered myself “successful,” whatever that means, and now, this aspect of my identity that made me feel so good, was gone.
I soon realized that the reason I had never experienced failure was not because of my abilities, but rather, because I rarely ever took risks. I never tried anything new. I hardly ever put myself in a situation where I could really “fail,” and when I did, I was either lucky or was able to ignore it. I was only ever a “successful” person because I never took risks. This prevented me from experiencing these low lows, the truly devastating feeling of failure, but it also stopped me from feeling the true joy of working hard and succeeding. Although sometimes difficult, I now know that the quality of my life will be significantly better if I keep taking risks.
Written by: Mikey Gibeley