I slumped down next to a tree near the finish line. I was exhausted and I was frustrated. I had just completed a cross country race. It was the second race of the season.
I came in last place.
It’s no fun being last. Every single one of the 80-90 runners that day had crossed the finish line in front of me. As I sat there, with my head leaning back against the tree, I kept saying to myself, “I’m done with this.” My coach approached me. He must have read my thoughts because the first thing he said to me was, “Are you going to quit?”
He went on to encourage me, to talk about all of the other things I added to the team besides my finish times. He knew I had to make a choice at this pivotal moment. I could quit the team and leave because of my failure. Or I could choose to do something different. I could choose to learn from this moment. I could analyze, reflect, and use my failure in this race to make me better, both as a runner and as a person.
Every year, I have the opportunity to work alongside some amazing student leaders. I watch them experience great success and occasional failures. At the end of the year, when we take time to reflect back on our experiences, they’ll talk more about the lessons they learned from their failures then their success. Nobody likes to fail. I don’t think any of us sets out to intentionally fail. But when failure happens, it offers us a choice. We can choose to quit or we can choose to question.
If you fail and quit, it’s game over. Done. Finished. Bu-bye. But if you fail and choose to question your failure, it’s game on. Growth. Improvement. Another chance.
If you choose not to quit and you want to turn your failure into a teachable moment to make you better, here are nine questions to get you started.
1. Why did I fail?
Take responsibility for your role in the failure. Also, consider other factors that played a part. When you understand why, you’ll have a better chance of not repeating your failure.
2. Was it really a failure or an unrealistic standard?
Sometimes we set ourselves up for failure by setting an expectation that is impossible to reach. For example, I will fail miserably if I tried to dunk a basketball. It’s simply unrealistic at this point. But it might be attainable if I change my approach (lower the rim or jump off a chair) or change my goal (become a better three-point shooter). Failure gives us the opportunity to assess both of those things.
3. Was there a success hidden somewhere in my failure?
Failure has a way of crowding out all other memories of the experience. Failure can feel so traumatic it negates every good thing we did. We might actually be on the edge of a breakthrough but this moment of failure temporarily blinds us to it.
4. What did I learn?
Every failure has a lesson. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it’s subtle. We simply need to take the time to find it.
5. Are you thankful for this failure?
I think it would be weird if you stood up after every failure and shouted, “Yes! I am so grateful for this failure!” This question is more about your attitude toward failure in general. If you resent your failures, you’ll become more overwhelmed and intimidated by the very thought of failing again. But if you can change your attitude to gratitude for your failures, you’ll begin to see the value they can bring to your life.
6. Can I use the experience of this failure and turn it into a success?
Your failure can be viewed as a successful experiment on how not to do something (thank you Thomas Edison). You might never have known how to be successful until you tried and failed. Some of the best inventions of our time have come as the result of someone’s failure to invent something else.
7. What now?
Since things didn’t turn out as expected, something needs to change. You might not need a new goal, just a different plan or strategy. It’s time to figure out how to get where you want to go from this new point on the map.
8. Has anyone else failed like this and can they help me?
You’re probably not the first person to fail in this manner. Another person with a similar failure can offer you perspective. You can learn how someone else handled this experience. You’ll find someone who can relate to your experience better than most. Who knows, you both might decide to start a support group.
9. How can my failure help others not to fail?
Let me tell you a secret: You are actually more easy to relate to when you share about your failures than when you talk about your success. Since we all fail, we find inspiration from those who have also failed and done something positive with it. Think about how your failure can not only help you improve, but help others as well.
Now back to my cross country race…
As I sat there and listened to my coach, I made a decision to not quit – to remain on the team. My coach also helped to shape my goals, my approach, and my role on the team. I never won a race that season (nor finished in the top half of runners), but I never came in last again. One of the goals my coach encouraged me to pursue was to help every other runner on the team to be the best he or she could be. At the end of the season, the team handed out two trophies. The “Most Valuable” runner went to a guy named Abe (he was phenomenal). The second trophy, “Most Inspirational” runner went to me.
Never would have got that if I quit.