Is Failure the Opposite of Success?

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A dear and wise client of mine, Jo, sent me a text last night with a seemingly simple question.  She asked, “How do you define success?”

I read this text at the end of a day that felt like anything but successful.  I had failed to finish a 50-mile race that I had trained for with great commitment and dedication.   As a Coach who helps clients clarify their singular and unique definition of success and then partner with them in creating a road map to achieving their goals, I know all about this process.  I understand the difference between intention and commitment, as well as the difference between saying what we want and doing the work that is required to make it happen.  But here’s the thing; sometimes it’s just not our day.  Shit happens that is out of our control, and we don’t get what we want (for now).  Is that a failure? I say yes. It’s a failure in that we fell short of our goal. But failure, as heartbreaking and difficult as it can be, is not the opposite of success.  Failure means that things didn’t go as planned -- this time.  Far from being the opposite of success, failure is, literally, what success is made of.  It is as dough is to bread, air to breath, and water to a rushing river. One makes the other possible.

Although certain failures have irreversible long-term consequences, I’m talking about the other 95% of undesired results that we so regularly beat ourselves up about.  I know about this because I’m shoulder to shoulder with my clients who practice this unhelpful habit and because I’m guilty of it myself.

When I read Jo’s question, the first thing that happened was not a download of wisdom.  It was big fat tears that seemed to emanate from every cell in my tired body. Her question went straight to that place inside me that is processing the sadness and disappointment of not having reached a goal that was important to me.  Her astute and timely questions helped me do for myself, what I do daily with my clients. I help them to slow down, feel the real feelings they are experiencing, have deep compassion for themselves (as they would for a loved one), and only then can they slowly emerge into a place of equilibrium from which new insights arise and new plans can be created.

One of the mind traps that get in the way of feeling and being successful is our habit of confusing success with results.  In our culture, most of us have been raised to believe that money, grades, and professional titles are what define success.  Those are all good things, but they are results.  We make money as a result of creating something of value that others are willing to pay for.  We get good grades and go to prestigious universities as a result of putting in an extraordinary amount of time and attention, and the same applies to anyone who has a professional title they are proud of.  The result of something is not the thing itself.

 So, dear Jo, this is my humble attempt to answer your worthy question.  Success is:

  1.  Having the courage to create a vision and go after it.
  2. Making a commitment to your vision (and therefore to yourself).
  3. Devoting the maximum time and attention necessary to be confident that you have done all the possible preparation the goal requires - a professional can help tremendously with this piece, but she can’t do it for you (refer to #2)
  4. Showing up at the start line.
  5. Truly giving it your best - This is not the same as “I tried….” and it requires cultivating our grit and resilience.
  6. Accepting the (positive or negative) results with a measure of humility, compassion, and gratitude, knowing that, as humans, we simply don’t have control over some circumstances.
  7. Getting back up.
  8. Transforming the experience into one that serves, inspires, and motivates you and others to move forward with even more purpose and power.

Take some time to write your own definition of what success means to you.  This is your own unique and personal list.  No one else can decide it for you.  Once you become crystal clear about your definition, write it somewhere visible and use the 3 R’s every day. 

Read - Remind - Remember!  Over time the shape of your life will transform to accommodate your and no one else’s definition of what it means to be successful, and no singular event will again be experienced as a failure.


P.S. I’m committed to sharing my Life Coaching skills and tools out into the world, in the hope that it can help others. If this blog resonates with you, please consider forwarding it to anyone who may benefit from it. If this was forwarded to you, subscribe here.

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