In defense of failure

Pop quiz: What do these statements have in common?
  • "When I lose twenty pounds, I'll go on vacation."
  • "I'll submit a guest post as soon as my writing improves."
  • "Once I've gotten really great at softball, I'll play on my company team."
  • "I'll confront my mom about her negative comments once I move out/get married/have a baby."
  • "I'll wear a swimsuit in public as soon as I can run a 5K."
  • "Once I reach x number of followers, then I'll know I'm a successful blogger."
Have you guessed? The common thread behind all of these thoughts is both a fear of failure and an all-or-nothing approach to doing things. The core of this thinking is, "I won't do it until I know I can do it perfectly." And, attached to this philosophy, is the fear of failure.

If you follow me on Twitter, you likely heard me bemoan the fact that my computer caught a virus yesterday, rendering it as usable as a cement brick. Dolt that I am, I had neglected to back up my work or save my outfit photos on an external drive, so the pics scheduled for today's post were inaccessible. After much hand-wringing and crying and unleashing a spout of expletives usually reserved for a commute on the New Jersey Turnpike, I decided to skip today's post. What was the point, I wondered, of posting without outfit pics? It would be incomplete. Unfinished. And far from perfect. In my eyes, it would be a failure.

I can't dispute that there are benefits to protecting yourself from the risk of failing. Cautiously approaching situations assures us that we won't look ridiculous or get caught unprepared. But the downside to this is that we avoid trying new things. We obliterate potential opportunities to be creative. The pressure to be "perfect" leaves us tip-toeing around family members or coasting on automatic pilot at work, feeling safe but stuck. By not challenging ourselves, we become complacent and even lazy. We're not as likely to discover new things we're good at or might enjoy. In addition, we're unlikely to learn that we can survive and even learn from failure, or that we don't have to fear failure as much as we do now, because we haven't had much experience dealing with it.

Fiona Lee, psychology and business professor at the University of Michigan, explored which conditions help people experiment with novel ideas. She uncovered an interesting phenomenon. Lee's study concluded that rewarding employees who repeatedly try new things and fail leads to more innovation and more long-term success. Employees grew from their failures, and utilized them into opportunities to be creative.

G.K. Chesterton once said: “Everything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” If something is worth doing, and we don’t have the skill, confidence, or energy we need to do it really well or perfectly, we might as well go ahead and do it poorly, since it’s still worth doing. It’s the worth doing that is key here. I’m not suggesting that we try to fail. This mentality is for the things that are risky, that we’re not great at, but are worth doing despite the possibility of failure.

When we redefine failure as “not trying important things” rather than “not succeeding at important things,” we can set ourselves free to live adventurously. Understanding, and appreciating, the value of an opportunity, and letting it override the fear of failure, might lead to rewards.

In the end, I've decided to post without outfit pics. I'm using my home computer, and as I had saved my work through Blogger, am able to blog as scheduled. Is it "perfect"? No. But learning to work around my failure will make me more resilient and adaptable. And, in the end, that's worth far more than a perfect post.

How have you worked with the risk of failure? Does the thought of failure scare you into avoiding certain tasks or activities? Have you ever worked through a fear of being less than perfect or failing, and found positive results?


  1. It's all about bravery - and putting yourself out there, without the worry of what others may think. I tell my daughter this all the time and try to live the same way. After all, life is TOO short to miss out on opportunities because of fear!

  2. I'm so glad you decided to post and all the computer viruses be damned! I joined your blog mainly for your insightful and thought provoking topic and I consider your blog so much more than a daily outfit post.

  3. I definitely needed to read this. I can definitely get caught up in perfectionism sometimes, and so it was good to be reminded of this, especially as I'm preparing for next semester of classes (in an especially challenging program, which makes me worry that I will not be able to reach my overachieving goals). It'll be important to remember that failure is good and okay. Thank you:) I think I'll bookmark this.


  4. Fiona Lee's findings are interesting. I wished I worked in a place that could afford more creative failure. I taught a course in collaborative novel writing last spring. We did it--17 students completed a 600 page novel. And then, one student objected to seeing it published...grr.

  5. I am all about not doing something if I can't do it right. Which is why I don't like to go out dancing, because I look like a hyena.

    I should get over that, because it's the fun of being with friends that matters more than whether or not I can dance as well as someone else.

    And I think it's not even so much whether we succeed at something that should matter because honestly, the fact that we TRY IS the success, not whether or not we do it as well as we would have liked.

    I'm glad you posted anyway even if you didn't have pictures. :)

  6. Fear of failure is likely the number one reason I am my biggest obstacle to success. I am really hard on myself and get focused on perfection. Blogging is actually having an unexpected side-effect for me... It's forcing me to do the best I can and then send the posts out to the universe. Still haven't worked up to my first outfit post but I'm learning to let go. :)

  7. Haven't thought about the way I live until I read your post. I live from failure to failure because that is where I lead myself to.

    Thanks for bringing the subject to the table and making me confront with it.

  8. My husband always says "Perfect is the enemy of the good."


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