March 31, 2014

Unraveling Failure

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Nobody goes looking for failure. Nobody shows up on the first day of a new job, hoping to find out what the severance packages are like. Nobody signs the medical release form, looking forward to learning the intricacies of the fine print.


No, we don’t seek failure. In fact, we avoid it at all cost. We research, we prep, we plan, and we test, all to avoid failure. And yet, failure eventually finds us all. You can lock the doors, pull the curtains tight, and turn off the lights, but failure can and will find a way in.


I was recently reminded of the inevitability of failure when I received three phone calls from good friends, all of who were visited by failure. The first call was from two young entrepreneurs whose new business had been turned upside down. Somehow they had to explain to their investors why they wouldn’t be able to launch as planned. Next was a friend facing the unenviable task of explaining to his donors how a bookkeeping mistake had crippled their efforts. The last was a buddy whose struggling small business had finally run out of steam.


Insights from an Unlikely Place

As I listened with empathy to the stories of each, I heard the familiar emotions of shame, fear, confusion, disgrace, doubt, and loneliness. I was immediately brought back to episodes of failure in my life and work, and to one situation in particular.


Some years ago I endured one of the most trying periods of my career. In spite of all my experiences to that point, I had more questions than answers. I was in pain, and I was confused. The future was cloudy and I felt alone.


In search of some measure of clarity, I spent an entire year reading, processing, and digesting the Old Testament story of Job. Though many of the lessons I learned during this time were private, many of the insights I gleaned are worth sharing.


Now, if you’re familiar with Job’s story, you might be scratching your head a bit. After all, Job didn’t exactly fail in the traditional sense. He didn’t launch a business or roll out a new initiative, only to see his efforts fall short. He did, however, endure an inconceivable amount of pain and loss in a short period of time. In short, he suffered.


While most of us will thankfully never experience anything approaching what Job endured, I think we can look to his trials and store up wisdom for the time when our own storms peak over the horizon. Here are a few thoughts to consider:


  1. Sometimes, there is no one to blame. We generally want there to be a villain, someone or something to blame when failure comes our way. Things just make more sense when we can point the finger somewhere, even if it’s just back at ourselves. Job’s friends needed him to be wrong. They needed there to be some sin or mistake in Job’s life that they could point to as the culprit…but there wasn’t. While this is rarely the case for us, it is sometimes true. For example, I can’t count the number of small business owners who have declared bankruptcy in the last 4-5 years as a result of the depressed economy. You might say they should have managed risk better or anticipated the downturn. I would say that isn’t always the case. It’s possible to endure failures that are simply part of the larger drama. When this happens, fight the urge to assign blame.

  2. When it is your fault, own it. Don’t let #1 fool you. Sometimes it is your fault. When those times come, own it. Don’t shirk responsibility. Don’t lash out. Don’t rationalize. Don’t deflect. Just own it, learn from it, and move on.

  3. Hold on to your core beliefs. Job didn’t have answers, and at times he had little hope. But he wrapped his heart and soul around his personal core beliefs. And one of those core beliefs was that God is good and fair.

  4. Practice Empathy (i.e., don’t be like Job’s friends). Be careful when riding through a failure with a friend. It isn’t your job to play the Holy Spirit or the prophet. You don’t need to discern God’s will in someone else’s life, you don’t need to point out where they went wrong, and you don’t need to explain how the pain will make them stronger. In fact, you probably don’t need to talk much at all. You need to listen. As this HBR blog eloquently explains it: “When people who have failed are in the depths of despair, they need empathy more than your rationalizations and encouragements about the future.”

  5. There may not be a lesson (at least not on this side of Heaven). Have you ever noticed that God never really answers Job’s most pressing questions? He never tells Job why everything happened. As far as we know, Job is completely unaware of the heavenly conversations that preceded his suffering. In the end, God reminds Job who He is and who Job is, and that’s it. Occasionally that is all we can glean from failure—that God is sovereign and we are not. Fortunately, for people of faith, that is a fairly wonderful truth.


Failure Doesn’t Have to be Final

The tragedies that befell Job were not the end of his story. In fact, the days that followed those tragedies were more blessed “than his beginning.” Our failures need not be the end of our story either. As hard as it is in those moments of pain, we must try and look beyond the present. We have to pick ourselves up, wipe off the dust, and get back to it. Perhaps most importantly, we can’t let the memories of past failures paralyze us. We can learn from failures.


“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” J.K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard Commencement.


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