Stop Being Afraid of the F Word, Failure is an option

By Jillian Smith

Last week, a no-name politician from a poor district attempted to take the party leadership position away from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Despite two weeks of intensive campaigning, taking countless interviews and trying his best to challenge what some could term a Washington Goliath, Congressman Tim Ryan came back with only a third of his party’s vote. In many respects, and as some columnists have stated, Tim Ryan failed.

But what Congressman Ryan argued, and what columnist Andrea Wood of the Business Journal argues so articulately, is that even though he may have “failed,” the congressman’s run was, in fact, a victory. As Ms. Wood states, Ryan’s actions forced the party to consider a reshaping of its messaging on economic issues. In Wood’s words, “Ryan took a big risk and came out a winner.”

I don’t mean to come out for or against Mr. Ryan as a politician, but I will unhesitatingly applaud his thought process in understanding that failing does not make him, or anyone else for that matter, a failure. This is an idea that seems to be lost among many of us.

Please don’t take this as advice that barely studying for and failing your final exams is totally fine. That’s just laziness. The type of failure I speak of is the dignified failure of doing everything you can to achieve something and still falling flat on your face. This failure is that gritty, painful feeling of not being good enough. But this kind of failure is the kind that our generation has largely become avoidant of, and this is not necessarily good.

A recent study from Babson College found that 41 percent of 25 to 34 year-olds cite “fear of failure” as their number one reason for not starting a business. This is an increase of 17 percent in the same response to the question from the year 2001. Another study from the University of San Diego found that reported levels of anxiety among young Americans are at the highest they have been in 80 years. One of the largest side effects of anxiety, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is an intolerance of risk; in other words, a fear of failure.

What these statistics point to is that our generation, having been raised in uncertain times in large part due to a massive financial crisis, would rather play it safe than avoid the whiff of the F word. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that nobody goes around documenting all of their failures on social media. To be constantly presented with images of our peers’ successes only intensifies our intolerance of failure.

This is something I have had to tell myself often. My last year has been marked with many, many, many failures. But because I am also not prone to advertising all of them, friends often tell me that I seem to be doing quite well. They would be right; I have accomplished many personal goals and have even exceeded my expectations in certain areas. But what friends don’t see is how many times I have failed to achieve them. I have become better at blocking out that little voice that tells me, “Yes, but what if this happens? Or yes, but what if you embarrass yourself?” and have started learning to embrace the fact that I can fail, and this does not mean anything at all, other than that I now have another experience from which to learn.

In the Christian faith tradition, a beautiful concept acknowledging human fallibility is expressed:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

In that same vein, may we embrace the fact that our weakest moments can sometimes be our deepest sources of future strength? In light of finals week, in light of Tim Ryan’s unsuccessful bid and in light of the fact that our past does not define our future, remember to do things to the best of your ability no matter what. You very well may fail. You actually will probably fail sometimes. But don’t run from the failure. Embrace it as an opportunity to grow and to learn, and never allow yourself to think that you are a failure.