“What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger” is the oft similarly quoted aphorism from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. It is one about resilience made popular by songs from Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson.
Personally, I like the sentiment. It gives permission to attempt difficult things and falter. It rejects the notion that we have to get it all right. It allows us to be vulnerable.
The fear of failure is a crippling thing, for it is only through a willingness to fail that we can find our limitations and reach for the edge of our current capacity (see yesterday’s post) and thus realise growth.
I believe, in order to grow and develop, we must be willing to fail regularly, over and over. In fact, I would go so far as to say that avoidance of failure means you will never reach your potential as a resource-filled, inherently gifted human.
However, failure is not a simple binary matter and behaving as if it is reveals a child-like-thinking quality about it.
Remember sports days at primary school, when 4-11 year olds competed in races of all kinds – simple sprints, egg and spoon races, three-legged races, sack races? For some kids, it was literally win or lose. If they did not place first, they felt they had lost, even if there were another 14 kids in the race and they placed second.
That is what has been called nominal thinking.
In my mind, failure is a graded system, a more mature style of thinking that might recognise placing 2nd amongst 15 is actually pretty good. Yesterday I used the words “micro-failures” and “catastrophic failures”. You see, the fact is Nietzsche’s quote is not entirely true. Some failures, which don’t kill you, can significantly hurt you and leave you weaker, not stronger.
It’s important to approach life’s challenges from an informed position. You need to know what the potential downside will be if you fail badly. For example, I recently took an exam which I expected to pass but I had never taken an exam in this subject before and I had never taken an exam of this style before; it was a face-to-face hour-long oral exam.
“Some failures, which don’t kill you, can significantly hurt you and leave you weaker, not stronger.“
I got as much revision and support from colleagues as I could but, nonetheless, I considered whether failing the exam was something I would be able to handle. How would I feel and what would I do if I failed? I decided that failure would mean I was under-prepared and that it would not be because of my potential ability.
I also decided that failure in this exam would put me in a better position for the resit. Going through this process helped me to recognise that failure would not be catastrophic. It would be somewhat embarrassing and discouraging but nothing I couldn’t handle. I think that reflection put me at ease for the exam and helped me to be more composed during the process.
The exam itself was very different from what I imagined, a really valuable experience, especially as I will be sitting more exams like this in the future. But, thankfully I passed. PHEW!
Sometimes, failures in certain areas of life can be devastating. For example, consistently failing to attune to the needs of your partner and family members can lead to a family break up. That can deeply wound a person. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be separated from those you love, on top of the regret one would feel. If that describes your situation, please don’t suffer in silence, reach out for help. There are professionals out there who can help you move on from this in a very healthy way.
A person can learn and grow and become more, become better. Sometimes, significant failure seems to be the only teacher a person will listen to. When we cease to listen to the honest observations of those who love us, we set ourselves up for the most difficult of times.
Life inevitably drops difficult times into our laps. Learning to regularly work through difficulties will stand you in good stead for these times. It is not the absence of failure but the manner through which we carry ourselves (that phrase again!) through those times which define us.
So how do we get good at handling failure? Here is a very non-comprehensive incomplete, off the top of my head answer (still recovering fro COVID-19, so please be gracious:):
1. Push yourself to the edge of your capacity. Push to the point where you are on the verge of failure, and then carefully push just a little bit harder. If you “fail” or mess things up, you have discovered your current limit and most likely expanded your current capacity a little.
2. Separate your value as a person from your performance. You are not what you do. Essentially, I’m saying, build your self-esteem to the point where you can fail and still be great in your own eyes, not seeking the esteem of others to feel good about yourself.
3. Develop awareness – see if you can be aware of what was going on within you and around you which lead to failure. Then the failure can truly serve you and inform you for the future. Reflect on your process, thoughts, feelings, actions before during and after the failure. What, if anything, did you do to allow the failure?
4. Celebrate the fact that you failed. Pat yourself on the back that you believed in yourself enough to launch into something that, for now, was just beyond you. Reinvent your relationship to failure. Make failure something which is recognised as a treasure which facilitates you becoming the person you want to be.
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Wellbeing… it means different things to different people but one thing is for certain, it means a lot to everyone. We all want to be well, healthy, full of vitality and joy. But life is sometimes tough and there is no such thing as a pain-free life.
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