What fascinates me most about failure is the apparent duality of the term. In order to know failure, one must be able to define success. In order to avoid mistakes, one must know the ‘right’, ‘best’ or ‘correct’ way of doing things.
To know failure, we must know success, and know it often. To know success, however, we must never know failure. We must work hard to succeed, but emerge not only victorious, but pristine and unscathed from our struggles. It must be difficult, but look easy. It must be complex & complicated, but completely perfect.
I have had the incredible privilege of creating a space for 21 student affairs colleagues to share their deeply personal and profoundly inspiring stories of failure as part of the #SAFailsForward blog series. You can read each of their posts over at the Student Affairs Collective. Each of these 21 people said yes when they could have very easily said no, and stepped right into the centre of the arena to show off battle scars and the often less than perfect side of what it means to be a professional (and a person) in the field. I owe each of them a debt of gratitude for taking not just a risk, but their risk – in each of their stories, they have dared greatly, and I thank them for it.
As the collector and curator of the #SAFailsForward posts this month, I have read each post with an almost clinical eye, providing feedback when asked and ensuring posts are formatted correctly and shared appropriately. Ultimately, lessons and inspirations have snuck in, many of which I hope to continue to reflect on and share in the days, weeks, and months to come.
What struck me immediately, even before I had read the first post of the series (thanks Sean!), was how failure is defined, described, and discussed. Much like my musings on the definition of community, in order to understand one concept it seems necessary to clearly articulate its opposite. One cannot have an in group without creating, by extension, an out group that is different, unique, and, often, undesirable. The same, then, seems to be true for our definitions of failure and success. We create what success is (what it must be) in order to know what it isn’t.
How we define success, however, ultimately sets us up for failure. Success is perfection. It is being like everyone else, or, at least, someone else. It is being different, but acceptably so. It is being the same, but only the same as a select few. We create ideals and idols that we look up to, a goal set too high on a pedestal kept safely out of reach. Success is attractive, but impossible. Despite the stigma and shame of failure, there remains a fascinating need for it, as success can be just as terrifying. We are comfortable as lifelong learners, especially in this field, and by never reaching the lofty heights of success, we can continue to learn in our own, often narrow, comfort zone.
Success is just as scary as failure. When we fail, we find more proof of what we always thought we weren’t. When we succeed, we suddenly have evidence of what we never thought we could be.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. This fear can be fuel.
Success, just like failure, is personal. Climbing the mountain is success for some, but making it to the base is a huge accomplishment for others. On bad days, answering emails is a struggle, and on good days my emails have too many exclamation marks. The standard of success is something we (read: you) create. This means you get to decide if you’ve failed, and you get to decide when, and if, you are successful.
Success is transient, personal, and dependent on too many things to be a single, universal construct. Don’t let yourself fail by someone else’s standards of success.