Debunking Limiting Myths – Failure

“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
~ Denis Waitley



I start most of my coaching sessions with “mindset shift work” and use, amongst others, principles gleaned from the Neuro-Linguistic Programming framework to inform my methodology. One of the key mental or attitudinal frames for maintaining a success-yielding worldview is that failure is only feedback and nothing else. I always say, you can expect at least two outcomes from any scenario, the desired result or, a real-life, real-time MBA i.e. a priceless set of lessons that you can use to propel you to even greater success on your next try. So, this societal fear and stigma around “failure” is misplaced because essentially, there is no such thing, only feedback on, “how not to do it next time.”


So, where does the stigma around “failure” come from? I can only share from personal experience.


Growing up in the 80’s, failure was a dirty word which was a source of shame and notoriety in any number of scenarios including failing a test, exams, or worse, repeating a class, and the teacher singling you out for a nice round of, “let’s shame the failure”. The “failures” were teased mercilessly by their peers and berated for underperforming. Failing the school year sometimes resulted in moving to a new school to escape the humiliation of repeating. Nobody wanted to fail and, if they did, some families even went to the extent of concocting fantastical stories of why Tsépo had moved to a school in Matatiele during the last school holidays. Failure therefore necessarily involved massaging the truth in any number of directions to suit the agenda, hiding away in shame and not facing the situation with your head held high. Failure also attracted labelling and adults conversing in hushed tones about The Embarrassment. I cannot recall a single scenario that I was exposed to as a child where my peers or the adults around us looked at failure constructively. So, we are socialized from a very early age to fear failure and to be deathly scared of, “what will they say if I fail?”


We are not capacitated by the school system to deal constructively with failure and review our current methods with a view to adapting or abandoning them to prime us for success. Our parents, and their parents before them, also likely did not have the benefit of being tutored on how to turn so-called failures around and view them differently. Unless we consciously decide to do things differently, we will continue to impart the same lessons. As you probably know by now, I was an academic for 10 years and students not being able to progress to the next year of their studies brought with it many social ills: drugs, unproductive romantic liaisons, excessive alcohol consumption, depression, anger, shame and so on. I did not have the specialized wherewithal, at the time, to assist my students to transcend these perceived failures and do better on their second, sometimes even third, try.

So, this inability to handle failure with grace and fortitude does not bode well for us in adulthood because, pretty much like death and taxes, failure IS guaranteed.


I attended the Small Business Expo in February and the Founder of the National Small Business Chamber (NSBC), Mike Anderson, gave a very enlightening talk. Among many of the priceless nuggets contained in his talk was a liberating view of failure. Mr. Anderson related how even financial institutions are starting to change their tune and perceive failure differently in terms of how they view business or start-up loan applications. Banks normally approve loan applications from squeaky clean applicants and routinely reject applicants who have had spectacularly failed ventures along the way. He was invited to a breakfast by one top banker who shared about reviewing their lending practices when it comes to so-called failed entrepreneurs. They are now starting to realize that the guys and gals who’d got burned a couple of times but still got up were far more primed, mentally and emotionally, for success, than those who’d never been through the fire. The peerless Denzel Washington says, “fall 7 times, get up 8”. It’s the 8th time that defines you, not the 7 times that you fall.


Mr. Lightbulb himself, Thomas Edison, said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison is on record as having tried 1000 times before finally nailing a marketable lightbulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1000 steps.” Wouldn’t that be a more productive way of looking at any attempt that does not quite yield the result you expected?

I leave you with a short, but powerful, quote from author, Janet Fitch who said, “The phoenix must burn to emerge.”

Remember that next time when you hit a snag on your way to success. Delete this misnomer from your vocabulary. Live. Experiment. And never hide or be ashamed if things don’t turn out well regardless of how public your “fall”, after all, you’re getting your real-life, real-time MBA, so I say, congratulations SuperStar!