By John I. Kennedy Jr, MD

Well Be Wisdom

Failure. We often treat this as a “dirty word,” a thing we don’t talk about in polite company. And when it comes to personal failure, it can be even more challenging to discuss. But the reality is that we all experience failure. Some people have even suggested that the absence of occasional failure might be a sign that goals have not been set high enough. The pandemic has presented many challenges for all of us. Although some of our new ways of operating have offered unique efficiencies, the lack of regular connections with co-workers and the social isolation have been big negatives. I continue to feel that I am less efficient and less productive overall. And that sensation feels like a failure.

Recently, I received a reminder about the subject of failure, and its ubiquitous nature, in an unexpected place. In my faith tradition we have a short prayer, the Prayer for Young Persons, that contains the following petition:

Help them to take failure, not a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start.

This is an important bit of wisdom that applies to all people, no matter their age. It caused me to think about how to approach the reality of living with our failings, and that led me to review some of the publications on managing our response to failure.

There is no shortage of commentary and guidance about how to respond to our failings. Much of this comes from the business world. The authors typically serve up lists of recommended strategies. Although these list of specific actions vary greatly in length, the summary messages are all quite similar. Here is a short list representing a synthesis of a number of writings:

1. Separate failing from failure.

For many of us, it is almost a reflex to immediately begin to think of ourselves as a failure when we have an experience of failing to attain a single, specific goal. When that perspective takes hold, we need to step back and get a broader view of the situation. It is a time to ask ourselves what overall success looks like, and then to rethink how we can get there. With that done, we can achieve a more reasonable view of the single event.

2. Reconsider the failing as a tool for promoting change.

Failing when pursuing a goal via one pathway provides us with an opportunity to innovate. It is a chance to be creative, to develop new approaches and perhaps new skills.

3. Do the autopsy.

It is time to examine what happened, to ask how and why. Doing this work will typically require a break, a pause in the apparent movement toward the goal. It also requires that we “own it.” We must assume responsibility and maintain our commitment to the goal. At the same time, we must avoid dwelling on the failing in order to avoid returning to the label of failure.

4. Create a new strategy or set a new goal.

Once we have learned from the gift of failing, it is time to move forward. Based on the autopsy, we may decide that the prior goal was not the right target and we need a new goal. Alternatively, we may simple need a new approach, a new pathway to arrive at the destination

Failing is a regular part of our lives. Using these simple guidelines, we can begin to manage it in a productive and affirming way.


April 1, 2023