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Our Definition Of Failure Could Be Killing Success | This Is For Those Immobilized By Fear

By Kishore Sawh on February 25th 2016

It’s a recurring motif for many people, and possibly a prevailing one for creatives, that failure is at our doorstep. And when it arrives, it arrives like a malignant cancer that we will never be rid of, and it insidiously has the ability to metastasize into every part of our life as such. The fear of failure can be as immobilizing as any neuroses can be, and be its own self-amplifying feedback loop. That is to say, fear, not as a result of a single act of failure, begets more fear and failure.

Creatives seem to be particularly susceptible to this, and as I sit here on the floor of our few-century-old English home, struggling with it myself and reflecting while away from the madness of Miami, I feel for many dealing with this sort of cycle. I feel especially for creatives leading this life based around a fear of failure because it quiets the creative inside, and that’s tantamount to making us live a farce. We know this, but the fear can be so strong that we would rather continue leading this quiet life of desperation, in a prison of our own making, even though the door is wide open.


What has to be particularly tragic about this, is that at one point or another in our lives, probably many times, we’ve tasted the flip side of this. We’ve tasted success that comes from vanquishing fear, and it’s like a catharsis of your mind, and life seemed ever so sweet. It’s great even if the outcome wasn’t what you were aiming for; maybe it wasn’t a home run, but you stepped up to the plate, and you survived. Do you remember what that feels like? Of course you do, because it’s like some weird entheogenic experience you can’t get anywhere else. In short, it’s f#$%*&g amazing.

So if it’s so good, how do we get more of it? Part of the problem is likely laying in the definition of failure, and the implications that definition has for what else we value. As Jay Shetty remarks, the definition of failure rests on three resounding words: Lack.of.success. But the problem is, as he points out, that suggests that we don’t value the struggle, the learning, or growth.

Sure, these words are reformulations, in a sense, of the old adage that we should enjoy the journey and not just the destination, but what’s hidden and inferred in that, is that thinking that way is actually optimistic. And optimism, like fear, is its own self-amplifying feedback loop, which tends to lead to successes.


We live in a world, a time, where we are bombarded with imagery and news of the highlights of life, and those seemingly experiencing their entire existence through a never-ending chain of highlights. And because information now, as Gates predicted, comes at the speed of thought, essentially, it can seem that many creatives around you are experiencing meteoric rises and unbridled success. And that, that can be a lot to live up to, because we forget about the journey, and think only of the end.


In the video I’ve linked, Jay delves into how our definition of failure is in itself a failure, and how the reformulation of it could actually lead to more successes. Along the way, he highlights the struggles that came before the successes of people we all know well, and gives notion that we can begin to think of failures as doors to success, and I think, for some, that might be enough to help you vanquish your fear, and achieve that catharsis, that release, that euphoria just on the other side of it.

Incidentally, one way I’ve found helps is to have someone else join you, and you’ll each drag each other through the self-induced disruption necessary to breach the fear. Or bribery. That works too.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dave Haynie

    Great video!

    I started making things as a kid, and like most kids, they didn’t always work out right the first time. But the cool thing about it, whether being in a darkroom, messing with electronics, writing a computer program, etc… I could fail, fail, fail and no one was watching. For a shy kid, that gave me a push into creative endeavors, rather than sports or acting or performing or some other thing that would have me fail in front of an audience.

    And as I got deeper into arts, science, and engineering, I learned that what I was really doing was experimentation. Any time you do something new, whether it’s new to the world or just new to you, you’re not necessarily getting it in one shot. In an experiment, failure can teach you just as much as success. To use this effectively, there’s a loop: Analysis, Evaluation, and Synthesis… you try something based on what you know, see how that works and decide what you can learn from that, and then integrate that information back into your way of thinking about the problem, and start over again. In the military, there’s a similar idea called an OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, and act. The key is that, in both cases, you’re integrating feedback — you’re learning from your mistakes, you’re making adjustments to changing conditions, you’re reinforcing the bits of success you have.

    There was a story about Thomas Edison, the individual who basically invented the modern Engineering laboratory concept. Walter S. Mallory. Edison and his researchers had been working on the development of a nickel-iron battery for more than five months when Mallory visited Edison in his laboratory. Mallory wrote:

    “I found him at a bench about three feet wide and twelve to fifteen feet long, on which there were hundreds of little test cells that had been made up by his corps of chemists and experimenters. He was seated at this bench testing, figuring, and planning. I then learned that he had thus made over nine thousand experiments in trying to devise this new type of storage battery, but had not produced a single thing that promised to solve the question. In view of this immense amount of thought and labor, my sympathy got the better of my judgment, and I said: ‘Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?’ Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”

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