On failure and being a whole person


Failure is pain. It bruises our pride and our ego, and pokes holes in the image we have worked so hard to create… it disappoints. Failure shows that we are vulnerable and imperfect beings.

No one likes to fail.

In all honesty, I have failed miserably – and on more than one occasion. Failed projects, relationships, jobs, managing finances, Marie Kondo tidying, diets, interviews and much, much more. As I read this I cringe because I sound like such a loser. These are things I would usually not admit during job interviews, first dates, or on my resume – even in regular conversations with others because under no account should anyone know who we really are…

Or should they?

I was recently very inspired by Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, who shared his resume of failures (after going viral on the Internet) – where he inventoried all of the the things that didn’t work out for him.

Haushofer lists to all of the things that didn’t happen for him (professionally). Refreshingly honest and authentic, he says  “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible…I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”

He shows up as a whole person. And I like whole people.

Contrary to popular belief, people who have never failed are not superior than those who have. Do we really want to hire someone who has never failed over someone who has?  Resilience and resourcefulness arise from failure – how can we truly know about the stuff we are made of if it has never been put to the test?

In her famous TED talk, J.K. Rowling  tells the story that only after having failed multiple times, did she have to the clarity and focus to do something really amazing – because for her “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential”. She went on to influence an entire generation by writing one of the most popular series of books ever written.

Many of us spend our entire lives in fear of failure, and most organizations do not have a culture and process that acknowledges failure as a possibility, or as a learning opportunity.  I was lucky to have a leader and mentor early in my career who helped me when I failed, taught me how  to learn from it and move forward – and ultimately to help others when they fall.

Instead, many companies invest a tremendous amount of energy working to prevent failure. I am not saying that we should do everything we can to fail, I am saying that we should work towards amazing outcomes rather putting all of our energy towards preventing failure.

Ask yourself.

Do you want to accomplish amazing things? Or do you want to simply not fail?

Even if you put your best foot forward and still fail, it’s best to own it, walk through it, and spend time with it. Showing up as a whole person and owning both your accomplishments AND your failures makes for greatness.

Because in the end, the real test of your success isn’t whether you win — it’s how you respond when you don’t.

Aaron Orendorff

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