Why failure is the oxygen of success and happiness

By Paula Meir, Author of Your Life, Your Way: A Practical Guide To Getting Your S**t Together

On a recent car journey with my son (age 20) the conversation turned to the subject of failure:

“I don’t put myself in a position where I fail mum, I usually bail before that happens”

He stopped short of saying “failure isn’t an option” but it’s certainly one of those subliminal messages that society drills into us. ‘Success at all costs…’ that testosterone fuelled mantra that leads to stress, unrealistic expectations, and ultimately nibbles away at our mental health.

“Failure is the oxygen of success”

He looked at me quizzically, as if I was speaking Flemish.

(I suppose I should have been happy he was at least trying new experiences! And I should have realised that careless deployment of metaphors rarely works when trying to reason with your children….)

But failure truly is the oxygen of success, just ask Robert the Bruce’s spider, or indeed any of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. Without failure success cannot exist. That doesn’t mean to say failure is about risk taking, risk is more much mathematical than mental. For me, the most important element of ‘failure’ is being able to see it, recognise it, admit it, and be okay with it.

Success is the acceptable consequence of failure.

I often hear an ‘excusing’ of failure, avoidance of registering that anything or anyone was at fault as people desperately try to devise a narrative that subverts the very notion they have failed. Or even worse, people try blaming someone or something else in a vain attempt to avoid looking weak. Sometimes it’s just easier not to accept that visceral failing and then our life can, at least on the surface, revert some sort of Utopian state. And I’m not just talking about the corporate world. Denial of failure litters suburbia too. Getting our children the requisite number of qualifications so they can attend the ‘right’ university, and ensure bragging rights in polite society is just the tip of the iceberg in conditioning our children against the ills of failure.

Mental health in children would be vastly improved if we could teach them that things don’t always go to plan, we all make mistakes, and that is what makes us human, gives us humility and a greater respect for the world.

No parent likes to think their child isn’t anything but perfect (we might not agree with that behind closed doors but to the outside world it’s not something we readily and comfortably admit to). I mean if we were really honest about everything, what would we have to boast about at the school gate?! Yet, it is a very important life skill for our children to learn and be comfortable with.

Michael Jordan once said:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

So…. to my children I say this: embrace failure, it will make you stronger, more resilient and give you a reason to get up and be successful the next time. Use it as a power, not a weakness, and it will serve you well.

By the way… it will also make you happy.