“First there is the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”
-Julian of Norwich
Failure is hard. It’s hard because it leaves us fully exposed.
Those parts of ourselves that are insecure, driven, scared, and alone are spotlighted in moments of failure.
In failure, we find ourselves completely exposed for the mass of contradictions we are: confident, successful, put together on the outside; screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared on the inside.
But what if I told you that failure is the single greatest gift of grace you could receive from God?
Going through life devoid of failure leaves you stuck in what some refer to as the first half of life—the part of life that is obsessed with winning, dominating, making a name for yourself, and projecting the right public image. People stuck in this first half of life live superficial and uninteresting lives,stuck in their small agendas, small successes, and never wake up to a larger and deeper sense of purpose in life. Jesus laments for these people, “What good is it to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” (Mark 8:36).
So how can you learn to relate differently to your failures? Let me offer three benefits of failure:
Failure rescues us from living a small life. It forces us to face our own contradictions, make friends with our own mistakes and failings, and have the necessary inner struggle that eventually frees us to fall into the second half of life—the capacity to find beauty and glory in everything; to love yourself and others as the mass of contradictions we all are; to lead with a deeper sense of reflection, purpose, and wisdom; and to be a part of God’s larger story, much more glorious and dynamic than the story you were once creating for yourself.
Failure fuels creativity and innovation. If you are afraid to fail or to take risks, then you’re frankly not much good to your organization. Paul Misener, VP of Global Public Policy at Amazon, recently explained how failures helped Amazon discover a new customer base for their website: the selling customer. Now over half of the products sold on Amazon are through third parties. He had this to say about the list of failures that led to this discovery: “It’s OK to be wrong. It’s OK to make mistakes–it’s OK to fail. If you’re not willing to experiment you’ll never actually innovate. And if you want to experiment you have to be able to fail …”
Failure frees us from our work. God created work to be an expression of who we are to the world. But because of the insecurity and uncertainty inside of me, I can make work the source of who I am, instead of the expression. When this happens, it wreaks havoc in my life. All of a sudden, I’m only as worthy and deserving as my last presentation, my latest accomplishment. It’s like a drug. No accomplishment, no feedback, is enough to calm the fears stirring inside of me.
Failure activates the inner struggle in me. It serves as a vehicle for personal transformation where I am reminded that I am not what I do, what I have, or what others think of me. I am God’s son, He loves me, His favor rests on me (Luke 3:22).
Success causes me to forget this truth. Failure brings me back home.
That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection life” (Philippians 3:10). Death, resurrection, glory. Pain, power, hope. This is the path that leads to freedom, that gives weight to your existence.
Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, sums it up well for us: “Once we reach the age of thirty, success has nothing to teach us. Success is fun and rewarding, but we don’t learn anything new from it. It’s not a bad friend; it’s just a lousy teacher. The only thing that can teach us, that can get through to us and profoundly change us, is suffering, failure, loss, and wounds.”
Yes, failure is hard. But it is also beautiful. Yes, it can be embarrassing. But it can also be liberating. Yes, it’s not celebrated like it should be in organizations. But it is celebrated like it should be in the kingdom of God. Failure is a gift from God. Welcome it fully. Let failure do its work.
Make your work matter,
Director, Workmatters Institute