Thank Goodness for Failure!

For our animal brethren, mistakes are very often fatal. Stockpiling too little food for the winter, zigging when they should have zagged to escape the predator’s clutches, or stepping awkwardly and breaking a leg could, and probably did, spell the end.

For better or worse, we modern humans usually get to live with the consequences of our actions. We are around to deal with the aftermath of our mistakes. Even though most of our daily screw-ups are of little consequence in the big picture of life, they still feel awful. Our mammalian brains are wired to be highly averse to failure, pain, and social rejection, though they are unavoidable. As long as you’re living and breathing, you’re going to make mistakes, sometimes big ones.

And if you’re really living—trying new things, boldly blazing a trail for yourself, taking big leaps—you will crash and burn sometimes. You’ll lose your shirt in a business deal gone wrong, someone you care about will break your heart, a perfect opportunity will pass you by because you didn’t pull the trigger at the right time.

 

I’m speaking from experience here. I like to think I have lived life boldly and to the fullest, and as a result, I have failed big more than a few times. And you know what? I’m profoundly grateful for those failures. Without exception, every failure was a crucial stepping stone to where I am today. From my vantage point as a not-young man (I’m not ready to call myself old yet), I can look back and honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without failing.

I’ll even take it a step further and say that I’m successful today because not only was I willing to fail, I embraced failure as a part of the journey. This isn’t to minimize the very real social and financial costs. Believe me, I have absorbed some excruciating losses in my day. If you’re in the throes of something catastrophic now, I’m certainly not telling you to cheer up and look on the bright side.

No, but the reality is, time marches on. It can drag you kicking and screaming, or you can work to get your feet under you again and persevere. In every crisis, there comes a point where you have to ask, what’s next? Failure is never the end. You have one true ending in life. Everything else is a waystation on the path to the next thing.

There is No Success without Failure

The older I get, the more I appreciate failure. Nobody ever becomes successful without making mistakes, often huge ones. In fact, the individuals who rack up the most wins in life are also the ones who fail the most because they try the most. Professional baseball players strike out more than anyone on the planet because they see the most pitches and whiff on the most swings. Well-known comedians tell the worst jokes and bomb more often than their less successful colleagues because they step on stage and push the limits. Lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison supposedly said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

Even people who are objectively successful in one domain may be abject failures in another. Consider the stereotypical workaholic who builds an eight-figure business, but their kids barely know what they look like.

No matter how you define them, success, achievement, or “winning” only happen for people who are willing to put themselves out there, make themselves vulnerable, and be in situations where failure is a very real possibility. This holds true whether we’re talking about relationships, parenting, starting a business, working for someone else, or trying a new hobby. Variables outside your control derail your best-laid plans. Worst-case scenarios come to pass. When that happens, you have to be ready to pivot.

Pivoting

I talk about the concept of pivoting in Keto for Life. Pivoting means adapting on the fly when life throws you a curveball. The ability to pivot is the ultimate expression of mental flexibility, one of the pillars of living a long and healthy life.

Ben Franklin said that nothing is certain except death and taxes, but I say we add failure to that list. Your perfectly constructed diet and exercise routine work until menopause strikes and knocks everything out of whack. Your job is ideal until the company brings someone new onboard who torpedoes your cushy situation. Your business idea is flawless until the supply chain breaks down. As much as failures hurt at first, they are always opportunities to be nimble and find a new path forward as long as you’re willing and able to pivot.

My path through life has been non-traditional, to say the least. Among the many jobs I’ve held are elite athlete, coach, sportscaster, anti-doping czar, TV host, blogger, and author. I’ve started businesses painting houses, selling shoe repair kits, peddling frozen yogurt, producing and marketing high-potency supplements, publishing books (my own and others’), and, most recently, disrupting the condiment world. A few of my ventures were successful beyond my expectations. Others failed spectacularly. Some I simply moved on from in order to pursue new opportunities.

From the outside, it may look like my path was a series of stops and starts, abrupt left-hand turns, and a few somersaults. To me, there is a clear narrative of how I got from the scrawny kid who mowed lawns in junior high to the man I am today. Sure, there were some significant pivots along the way. By and large, each one followed an event that could reasonably be called a failure.

Failure isn’t just an opportunity for change, it’s a catalyst for change. Nothing lights a fire under my butt like failing at something. The trick is to avoid getting sucked into despair. The immediate aftermath of failure is painful and sometimes embarrassing, no doubt about that. However, once the initial suckiness subsides, a new world of possibilities opens up. You know the saying “one door closes and another opens.” Well, I say one door closes and two more open. And you get to walk through them with all the newfound wisdom you gained from your previous mistakes.

The only way to avoid failure is never to try anything. That’s the biggest mistake of all, as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s agree: Failure is inevitable. You can fight it and be miserable, or you can embrace it, learn from it, pivot when necessary, and be happy and successful in the long run. That’s all there is to it.

How to Fail Successfully

No, that’s not an oxymoron. I didn’t get to where I am today by succeeding at every turn. I got to where I am today—happy marriage, terrific kids and grandkid, thriving businesses, best-selling books, Primal community I’m incredibly proud of—by failing successfully.

Each and every one of my failures built me into the man I am today, but it didn’t have to be that way. At any juncture, I could have thrown in the towel and abandoned what I knew to be my mission and passion. I could have taken a more traditional road, working a corporate job to build up my 401k until I had enough to retire comfortably. That’s right for some people, but not for me; I was destined to carve my own winding path through life. Along the way, the ups and downs of my chosen path taught me a lot about what it takes to fail successfully.

Open-mindedness and Curiosity

Don’t cling too tightly to your ideas about what success could look like. Pose more questions and consider more possibilities. Instead of banging your head against a wall trying to make your current plan work, ask yourself, “What have I learned from plan A that I could apply to plan B, C, D, E?”

I think I’m pretty risk-averse, but I’m also intensely curious about what will happen if I just try. That’s propelled me to take leaps when other people would have stayed put. Australian poet Erin Hanson captured it perfectly in her much-memed sentiment, “There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky. And you ask, ‘What if I fall?’ Oh, but my darling, ‘What if you fly?’”

Lack of Ego and Attachment to Outcomes

A few years ago, I embarked on a business venture that turned out to be a disaster. Looking back, I can see how it all went wrong. Heck, if I’m being honest, I saw the train wreck unfolding in slow motion as it was happening. There were many times my gut said, “Cut bait, Sisson!” but I ignored it. I dug my heels in deeper and poured more money into the project. Why? Because I was too attached to the outcome. I was too determined to make it work at all costs, and cost me it did.

As that great American philosopher Kenny Rogers imparted to us in song, “You gotta know when to fold ’em.” Absolutely, be optimistic and believe in your purpose and your projects. Also be pragmatic. Let go of ego and listen to the smart people around you. Listen to the voice inside your head.

In this particular case, I took a big swing, and I missed. It was painful at the time, personally and financially. But you know what? Disentangling myself from that venture freed up the time and mental space I needed to redouble my efforts with Primal Kitchen foods, which is where my true passion was anyway. In hindsight, I should have walked away sooner.

Some Hubris

Be your own biggest fan. Truly believe you have something of value to offer the world.

Throughout my career, my most successful projects were the ones that best aligned with my core values and mission. My life goal was never to become a blogger or an author or a mayonnaise baron. I wanted to empower people to #LiveAwesome. Along the way, I discovered that blogging, writing books, and creating amazing food products were the avenues by which I could reach the most people.

At every juncture, my belief in my ability to fulfill that mission—to help as many people as possible reach their maximum potential and enjoy life to the fullest—was unwavering. Your specific purpose may be entirely different, but it’s just as important. Keep the faith, and you’ll keep finding your way.

Self-compassion

There’s no use beating yourself up when things go wrong. You can’t see the big picture when you’re focused on what an idiot you are for screwing up. Acknowledge the suffering that failure causes, remind yourself that it’s a part of life, and do your best to learn and move forward.

Perspective

Probably because failing is such an aversive experience, we tend to exaggerate our definition of failure. There is a big difference between making a mistake and failing. I have made countless mistakes in my life, but I have only truly failed a handful of times. And guess what, I’m still here to tell the tale. Why? Because even the most painful, most humiliating, most costly failures are rarely catastrophic in the long run. People do end up financially ruined or with their reputations destroyed, but those are the exceptions, not the rules. Don’t blow relatively minor hiccups out of proportion or they will become bigger than they need to be.

One of the biggest regrets people have is lost time. “I wasted so much time on that project/business/relationship.” That’s the wrong way to think about it. You invested time and didn’t get the payout you hoped for or expected. That time was not wasted as long as you learned something you can apply to your next venture.

In any case, there’s little value in looking backward. Regret is a waste of time. Only look back as much as necessary to glean the appropriate lessons from your past mistakes, and then turn around and face forward again.

Oh, and try to avoid making the same mistakes twice.

Don’t Worry About the Future

If I can leave you with one piece of wisdom I’ve gleaned from nearly seven decades spinning through space, it’s this: The future is coming no matter what you do today, and there is only so much you can do to prepare. Your energy is better spent focusing on the here and now. Do what you can to improve your life, be happy and fulfilled, and contribute to the world today. I don’t necessarily believe that “everything happens for a reason” in some big cosmic sense, but I do believe that everything is perfect. Things ultimately happen at just the right time for you if you’re always working on being true to yourself now.

Everything will be ok.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from failures in your life?

TAGS:  goals

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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20 thoughts on “Thank Goodness for Failure!”

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  1. Thanks, I needed the pep talk today as I’m in the midst of working thru some personal challenges based on my likely erroneous assumptions. Been weighing on me heavily and this piece helped me out. Thank you as always!

  2. Fantastic; thank you Mark!

    When I was a young snowboarder I use to say, “Unfortunately, I didn’t fall down today– That means I’m not pushing myself hard enough.” Nowadays (and a thousand educational bruises later) I embrace failure and I quote Thomas Edison regularly.

    As a systems analyst, my job is to find weaknesses in programs. If none of my tests fail, I get really nervous! Because failure inevitably exists, and it is quite a gift to exercise that failure in a controlled environment…

    I am really, really fortunate that as a child, my father trained me to look at failure through the filter of two questions:
    (1) What did you get out of this experience? (I.e., At the very least, what did you learn?)
    (2) How could the outcome have been worse?

    These are also the questions that promote gratitude and appreciation… So as I see it, there is an important connection between gratitude/appreciation, failure, and progress. Don’t you think?

  3. Ditto – with the others. Thanks for this. I would love to share it with others (I assume you won’t mind?). Great words.

  4. Although not, strictly speaking, failures, the same advice applies to catastrophic events. You have to opportunity to learn from each of them and create resilience as well as avoidance techniques.

  5. “Everything will be OK” —a perfect reminder for those times when we’re stressed out over trying to control what can’t be controlled or what doesn’t really need to be controlled. Thanks, Mark.

  6. Mark, this was the pep talk I needed just now. I’ve been happily retired for 6 years, but I recently accepted an offer for my consulting services with an interesting technology company. It means getting on the road sometimes, burnishing my technical knowledge and rekindling some older business relationships. I didn’t need the money, but I felt like I needed the work and the little bit of extra pressure to do and deliver that comes with a formal agreement with others. We came to terms and now I’m back on the hook to produce. When you can skate without producing, the motivation and incentive I get up and go are harder to find, but in the truest sense of a primal existence, when could any other creature besides man ever take their status for granted and just lay back and coast?

  7. Mark,
    Your timing is impeccable. This week the performance period (week 14) of training for IRON MAN CDA began. Saturday ended with me in the back of an ambulance after a long bike/run day. I passed out, hit my head on the flagstones and was out cold for several minutes. Several tests indicate I have a low blood pressure condition following strenuous endurance activity. I had my pity party and I am now looking for my next adventure. I have several IM’s and I love Triathlon with a passion.

  8. I believe it was Winston Churchill whose definition of success was from going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm…..

  9. I felt highly energized by the content of this article of yours. It is greatly to be preferred to the “be afraid, be very afraid” refrain of the national (and sometimes local) media. This will help me in my current issues (about blood sugar, money, ruptured tendons, etc).

  10. I wouldn’t be the person I’am today without all my failures.
    And for that I’m extremely grateful for!
    I really appreciate this article.
    Thank you.
    With Gratitude ?
    Blessings ?
    I

  11. I have…
    – failed out of college at 20…
    – joined the US Army at 22
    – moved back in with my parents badly in debt at 27 to go back to school, earning my MBA by 33.
    – started 3 businesses
    – opened and closed a restaurant within a year.

    The whole time I kept looking forward…learning, reading, listening…. Positive energy like this and the ability to believe has me sitting in my beautiful home as a successful professional with a wonderful wife and dog. The first time I had to learn to persevere it was extremely difficult and there was little hope. Time after time, it got easier and more beneficial. By the time I had to close the restaurant, I told my wife the next day that “even though it doesn’t feel like it, this next year would turn out to be one of the best of our lives.” It was. We put our heads down and worked harder than ever and the rewards were incredible. Over the years, however, I have learned that the fun is in the hunt and not the reward. So, the failures make the successes that much sweeter.

  12. I wasn’t raised with this wisdom; failure was failure and I learned to see myself as a failure of a person. It’s taken decades to adopt a healthier attitude (therapy, work on self, retraining my thinking) but my default is still negative and I have to work VERY hard to turn my thinking around, see the positive, and learn the lesson when I stumble. I so appreciate your positive, encouraging post, Mark, and the comments from your readers that echo your wisdom. You and the Primal community are an inspiration.

  13. Mark, thank you. This is probably my favorite of all the articles of yours I’ve read. Also for me, timely.
    I’ve experienced one of those fork in the road moments with the death of my son last month. I’ve been kind of dragging my feet trying to understand that tragedy. Today’s article has inspired me to make the most of this situation and to grow from it in a positive way. So again, thank you.

  14. God Bless You Mark Sisson. Thanks so much. I’m sending this to my Kids also.

  15. thank you for tis, and for your championing a true human diet. Hopefully with the increase of available capital from selling your condiment bussiness you can mkake your oice heard evn more