A few months ago, I went to lunch with a friend. We’d both been crazy busy and were excited to have an opportunity to catch up. Over the course of two hours, we unpacked on life changes, shared personal challenges, and reflected on the growth that came from them.
Inevitably, our conversation turned to failure, a subject that my friend often struggles with. She’s far from alone—failure haunts us all, and it always amazes me how we can be so fearless in certain aspects of our life, yet so paralyzed when failure looms over our shoulder.
I say looms, because for many of us, failure has been (at one time or another) like a specter: a bogeyman intent on shattering dreams left and right like some pissed-off comic book villain.
My first significant encounter with failure came at the age of 26. I had been involved in theatre since the age of 5, so by this time it had been a part of my life for over 20 years. As a kid, I had the classic goal of every theatre nerd: Broadway or Bust. For over two decades I worked to make that dream a reality, encountering myriad small failures along the way. I weathered those because they were a means to an end. They made my skin tougher and my resolve stronger.
Then, at age 26, life presented me with a tough choice: my dream or my health. I had pushed myself so much to realize my dream that my stress level was off the charts. Even worse, I had neglected to keep my soul safe, sacrificing my well-being to pour everything into this grandiose idea of success and acceptance. As a result, I made myself lactose intolerant, my digestive system was a mess, and I was plagued by chronic headaches. I also watched my close friend and theatre mentor struggle with debilitating neck pain brought on by years of doing a million jobs to make ends meet in the industry.
With a heavy heart, I decided that no dream was worth making myself so sick, and I stepped away from theatre. Of course there were a number of other factors involved, but ultimately my health was the top driver. I was heartbroken. It was incredibly difficult not to see this decision as anything other than an admittance of failure.
Then a funny thing happened.
Over the next ten years, I steadily built a new career in the business world by drawing on the skills I gained from my theatre experience. I found other things that inspired me. Did they give me the same rush as live performance? Not necessarily, but that didn’t mean they were any less meaningful. I also found other creative outlets that I enjoy.
In business, a company’s approach to failure can often mean the difference between innovation and stagnation. Two weeks ago I wrote about the leadership lessons from Pixar found in Creativity, Inc. It’s important to note that failure is a key tenet of Pixar’s creative process. They expect it and welcome it, because they recognize that failure isn’t a specter, it’s a speed bump, however ugly it may seem. Pixar President Ed Catmull says:
In 2000, Dave Eggers published a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which is amazing, and you should read it). I’ve always loved the title, but I want to turn it inside out for a moment and ask: Without Staggering Failure, how would we find Staggering Genius?
Only when we separate fear from failure do we discover that it’s not the bogeyman we thought it was. Failure forces us to be brave. It pushes us to find the staggering genius in ourselves and live a fuller life. It might break our hearts, but it can mend them too.