My Perspective on Failure

July 2005

Just yesterday, someone sent me an email with a quote attached that caught my attention. It was attributed to Eamon Kelly (president of Tulane University from 1981 to 1998), and read “My success resulted from moving from one failure to another failure with enthusiasm.” This got me thinking about failure, and how I view it in my own life.

When I was in my mid-20’s, I once had a job interviewer who asked me to tell him about my failures and how I handled them. I was quite unprepared for this line of questioning but was able to come up with a list of what I then saw as failures, starting with my unsuccessful bid for Student Council President in high school and continuing on through my decision not to attend law school (or rather, to not apply to law school) as my father the attorney had always hoped I would. In the past 25 years, I’ve certainly experienced failures in my life. But I’ve never thought of myself as a failure. There is a big difference.

I’ve lost a lot (just about every competitive event I’ve ever been in), but I don’t view myself as a loser. The fun of the game means a lot more to me than winning, so I don’t view losing as failing. I’ve done some really bone-headed things in my professional life but learned a great deal from most of those. I’m not the most successful coach in the country by any means, but I have created successes that matter to me (and, I trust, my clients). Actually, sometimes I wish I could look back and see more failure in my professional life; it would have meant that I had stretched more and tried more things that I wasn’t sure I could succeed in.

If I am able to move from one failure to another with enthusiasm, it is mainly because I embrace failure as a learning opportunity. I don’t let the fear of failure get its tentacles around me; usually those tentacles are rooted in my ego, my need for control, or my allowing others to impose their definition of failure on my life or work. I remind myself that a life without failure is often indicative of a life that is too sheltered, too dull, and not conducive to growth. Failure can shape me, strengthen me, soften me, and motivate me.

How do you view and respond to failure in your life? If I can serve you as you explore this part of your work life, please ask.

Sharon Keys Seal

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