The Unromantic Truth of Failure

April 3, 2020

I am terrified of failure, and I am also a people-pleaser—a tricky, albeit not uncommon, combination. Over the past few years, I have invested a lot (perhaps an embarrassing amount) of time and energy into reading self-help books, online articles, watching videos with titles like “The Journey Beyond Yourself” and “The Power of Introverts”—all of which promise to teach you how to be your best self, how to lead. 

I have done this in the name of personal and professional growth, to be the best leader I can be. It is deeply important to me that I do what I can to help those around me, but what I’ve found in many of those books, articles, and videos are sweeping blanket statements about letting go and moving on. They advertise a kind of transcendence of self and personal desire, being, in a way, another ad for perfection. There are so many quotes about failure framed as a beautiful stepping stone to ultimate growth, where the goal is total acceptance and unwavering confidence. I struggle with this. 

Phraseology

People speak about both leadership and failure in romantic terms. Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” While “stumble” and “failure” are not romantic ideas in and of themselves, this idea of never losing hope, never even considering to lose enthusiasm for your work, is idealistic, and, for me, impractical. Stumbling hurts. People don’t say this enough, but it hurts when you trip and fall. Does that mean you should give up or stop caring? No, of course not, but you can process your feelings, which I can almost guarantee are not all enthusiastic. Hardly anyone is as relentlessly enthusiastic as such platitudes expect. 

The nature of leadership means that your stumbles are usually highly visible. Jack Welch said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Although I agree, that doesn’t mean you cease to exist when you step into a leadership role. 

Leadership is hard, especially at a young age. I am fortunate to hold the positions I currently do; I am the editorial director at Backpack and a co-editor in chief of The Tower, an art and literary magazine at the University of Minnesota. Both positions are considered to be part of their respective leadership teams.

I love the work I do, and I am also 21 years old and a senior in college. I am still clinging onto the hyperawareness of my teenage years—everything is (at least slightly) heightened, mistakes feel kind of like the end of the world. I feel a lot of pressure to perform, and that means that my stumbles seem to sting a little more poignantly. 

I know the importance of apologizing when an apology is necessary and of listening to people and being open to feedback. You can do and be all of those things—accountable, empathetic, honest—but that doesn’t always mean it feels good in practice. 

Acceptance and Letting Go

Being a teenager sucks, everyone knows this. I know everyone knows this because when I was in middle school, everyone told me they knew how much it sucked. They also always told me that it gets better, and it has. So, maybe, eventually, mistakes will feel like the learning opportunity I know and believe they are. Or, maybe, they still won’t feel good, but it won’t feel as impactful.

Churchill has another pertinent quote: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” This one I like a lot more—for its acknowledgment of the pain and discomfort that accompanies failure. For me, having the courage to continue is realistic. Unwavering enthusiasm is not.  

At the end of the day, the best advice I’ve ever received was from my dad. I was in middle school and struggling with mental health, and he told me, “No matter where you are in your life, even if you’re at rock bottom, you have to wake up every day, look at yourself in the mirror, and tell yourself that you are okay.” 

I think this is so true, the importance of reminding yourself that you are okay. Feeling negative, uncomfortable emotions is okay, and, in a leadership position, part of the deal. Not being okay is okay. Failing and feeling upset about it is okay. “Success” is not a transcendence of feeling; it is the courage to continue.