Something is terribly wrong. This was the thought that repeated in my mind as my fingers flew over the keys of the fancy grand piano. I had played this piece a thousand times before, but something was off. I kept playing, aware of the concert hall full of people, as I frantically tried to understand why my hands were doing the right things but the music sounded wrong. Then it hit me…. I was about to run out of keys. I had begun the piece an octave too high and everyone was about to know my mistake. The most significant recital of the year and I had failed.
Failure (and success) is a learning experience—not an either/or status.
When babies learn to walk there is a LOT of falling but people cheer and encourage the kiddo to get up and try again. We’ve all seen grownups act like clowns to get a little one to take a few tentative steps. At what age do we stop cheering for first steps? Why is that? Often it is the encouragement that helps us to keep going and keep trying. We need to be reminded that a “fail” is actually a “First Attempt In Learning.” Learning how to be good at anything is a process. Being successful at anything is a learning process too. Let us be cheerleaders for first steps and learning to do new things!
Failure is a bruise and not a tattoo.
Failing at something can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be life-defining in negative ways. If we treat failure like it’s a tattoo-something that is intended to be permanent-then we miss the opportunity to grow in positive ways. Failure becomes the definition of the outcome. What if we approached the experience more like it was a bruise? A bruise hurts but it will heal. Learning to ask the question “What did I learn here that can help me move forward?” is an excellent way to help move past the pain and on to the task of trying again. Let us be learners instead of tattoo artists in how we approach failing at something.
Failure is an experience and not our identity.
There is a big difference between “I failed” and “I’m a failure.” Maybe there have been important people in our lives who have said horrible things to us, or about us, that we have believed. Sometimes we have told ourselves the lie that we would never amount to much. It is essential to understand that everyone experiences failure, but in God’s eyes, not one of us is a mistake (Eph. 2:10). God fiercely and perfectly loves us just because we are his children (1 John 3:1). Let us remember that our identity is found in Him and not in our failures or successes.
So what would it be like to give ourselves permission to fail? Could it be that we also give ourselves permission to try new things and have adventures? What would be different about our leadership and our ministries if we created a culture where failure was not the opposite of excellence but was instead part of the process of getting there?
I was in middle school when I failed at my piano recital. I have no memory of what my piano teacher or parents said to me when I came off the stage. I do clearly remember making the decision that I would never let this happen to me again E V E R. The result? I never played publicly again. I wish I could chat with my middle school self about all this. I would encourage her to be brave, to continue to learn, and to continue to play the piano. I would remind her that failure did not have to be permanent. I wish I could tell her that it is in the failures that music is often born.
USED WITH PERMISSION FROM KERRY LOESCHER, PROFESSOR AT ORAL ROBERTS UNIVERSITY