I was recently reading some of Tony Robbins’s work when he shared his thoughts on failure. This is a topic I have discussed many times over the past months as it seems to be a recurring theme in how we think of success and happiness. Brene Brown tells us that we must give ourselves permission to fail or else we will never dare greatly. We will also learn that the only way we truly fail is if we never attempt anything in the first place. A failure is only truly a failure if we take nothing positive from the outcome, whether it was the outcome we wanted or not. This brings us to Tony Robbins’s thoughts on failure: “there is no such thing as failure, only results.”
Thomas Edison went through 10,000 different attempts before successfully creating the electric lightbulb. When asked about his 10,000 failures he famously replied: “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This mindset is how we must consider the results of our life if we wish to be successful and happy. If Edison had viewed his several thousand attempts as true failures, he likely would have quit his endeavors. Instead, he changed his mindset to recognize that he wasn’t failing but simply producing results that weren’t his desired outcome.
As part of his ideas on failure, Tony asked his readers to imagine our past in several instances where we thought we had failed and to describe the value of the lessons we learned. I have many failures I could easily use for such an exercise, but I chose 2 below to demonstrate some of the moments that hit me the hardest but how in posterity I realized those events were valuable learning opportunities.
“Failure” # 1: Getting Cut from the Middle School Soccer Team
Prior to 8th grade there were no tryouts for any of the rec or school teams I had played on. I enjoyed reasonable amounts of success being able to coast on nothing more than natural ability and the bare minimum of effort. As we grew older, the level of competition grew, and we were eventually required to attend try outs.
Not seeing my name on the list of students who had qualified was one of the most painful experiences of my life to that date. I was utterly dejected and spent the next 2 years playing no sports, feeling resentful and generally unhappy about myself. The negative belief I had was that I wasn’t good enough to play soccer and that was simply the card that I had been dealt. I was a poor athlete and there was nothing I could do to change that.
One day something clicked. I had been working for a few months with a trainer named Ousmane, who is to this day one of my greatest role models and sources of inspiration. Working with Ousmane showed me I had the power to change the outcome of my body, and more importantly my life. On this particular day I heard several of my friends who were on the team talking about their upcoming tryouts (I was now in 11th grade having not played for 3 years). I realized how much I missed the camaraderie of being on a team and the thrill of competition.
Tryouts were still several months out so I dedicated myself to training in the gym and on the field to prepare. I was motivated not by fear of being cut again but by the positive desire to belong to a team once again.
I made the cut, barely. I spent the next season riding the bench while my more experienced friends played on the field and even found myself practicing with junior varsity on occasion. Finally, early in my senior year, I won the opportunity to be a starter on defense where I believe I made myself a valuable contributor to our team.
The lesson I learned here is that failure isn’t final. Getting cut from the team didn’t make me a failure. It simply showed me that the result of not putting in effort and not being sufficiently motivated would be me not being able to participate as a member of the team.
“Failure” #2: Getting rejected from Graduate School
In winter of 2012 I found myself working a dead-end, soul-sucking job that I had stumbled into by pure luck and circumstance following my graduation from college the previous year. I felt that I had finally found the opportunity that would get me out of this awful job I loathed so much and finally get me the chance to get my life on track: a master’s program for Sports Medicine with a focus in Strength and Conditioning – something that aligned closely with my passion of sport, health, and exercise.
I still remember reading the response I got from the university. It began something like this: “Dear Mr. Kenreich, we regret to inform you…” I don’t know if I read the rest. I didn’t need to. It felt like getting cut from the soccer team all over. Once again, I labeled myself a failure and was convinced that I would always stay that way, unable to elevate my own existence and doomed to the hand life had dealt me.
Luckily, I had and still have a wise and loving mentor in the form of my father, who helped me look critically at my situation and develop a plan to deliver me the results I wanted. I started attending undergraduate classes to make myself more knowledgeable in my week areas. I started mentoring coaches who had successful training businesses so that I could learn the habits of people successful in my field, and I volunteered for dozens of hours a week at the research lab so that I could boost my field knowledge as well as make a favorable opinion on those who would control my fate upon reapplication.
In August of 2013, after 2 semesters worth of undergraduate coursework and untold hours trying to learn my way through the industry, I was accepted into the Sports Medicine Program. My dedication didn’t end there. I still remembered the pain of rejection from the previous winter,and used that as motivation to ensure that I gave my very best effort. I knew what happened when I did the minimum, from that day on I would do my very best, especially as I tried to keep up with my classmates, most of whom had more experience and deeper background in the sciences myself. That dedication ultimately got me the highest ranking in our class and opened the door to several job opportunities.
I didn’t fail to get into graduate school, I simply realized that to get in was a privilege and that I would have to work to earn that privilege, that my greatest effort was required to realize success.
Just as I did in the two examples provided above, you have probably found yourself experiencing some negative beliefs about yourself over events that seem like failures. In such instances I urge you not to adopt the belief that YOU are a failure, but that you have merely had an unfavorable result. Review what happened, analyze your preparation, consider other approaches. When we learn from our negative results we turn failure into a positive learning experience and thus are able to move forward, filling our lives with happiness and success.