The past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. Most people tend to get caught up in the negatives of failure and they begin to overestimate its costs. Why do some people do this, whereas others aren’t phased by failure as much?
Failure is a very tricky thing to deal with. It looks very different depending on what angle you look at it from. From some angles, it’s intensely negative, and from some it can be very positive.
It’s obvious why failure can be negative. It hurts in the present and it may also hurt in the future. It may affect your relationships, your financial independence, and your future plans. People who understand this try to both maximize success, but also, perhaps subconsciously, to minimize failure.
What I’ve recently realized is that some people don’t think about minimizing failure at all. When Michael Jordan was asked what his biggest disappointment was in sports, despite having experienced many conventional failures, such as his 0.202 batting-average season for the White Sox Major League Baseball Team, he answered:
“I haven’t had any disappointments. […] I’ve looked at every experience that I’ve had, negative and positive, and I’ve taken that experience as a positive. Sure you don’t want bad things to happen, but you deal with bad things. You can’t have good without bad.”
“Turn every negative into a positive” is a platitude. What does it mean exactly? Whenever you fail, should you just force yourself to look at the positives?
Maybe that’s the way to do it. But Jordan was also quoted as saying, “Before you win, you must learn to lose”, and with that, it makes sense.
Most people try to increase the amount of success they have, and also subconsciously try to minimize the amount of failure they have.
Ask yourself this, in the following scenario, which person do you consider more successful at achieving her goal of winning the Imaginary International Math Competition?
Sam, who tried the competition 8 times before winning, or Judy, who won it on her first try? Most people would say that Judy was more successful, since Sam’s failures must be some sort of a detriment. I would have picked Judy by a small margin. Judy probably did it with less effort, time, and opportunity cost.
But I argue that for some people, failure doesn’t matter - it’s not at all negative. To these people, Sam and Judy are equally successful, since it’s the end and not the means that matters to them. MJ spent 6 seasons in the NBA before winning his first championship, but to him, those seasons weren’t failures.
Viewing failure as the absence of success, and not as an actual negative event has many consequences. You stop wasting your mental energy on it, and instead think only about how to achieve success. Things like “turning negatives into positives” begin to happen automatically, since by definition failure is no longer a negative thing.
This makes sense on paper, but does it work in practice? Surely there are real-life details about failure that make this impractical. I asked a select few of my most successful friends, and it turns out that they have been thinking this way for years.
I don’t expect you to just take my word for it, but if my argument was convincing, try it for yourself! I definitely will.