Quick Takes:

  • Failure is a single point in time
  • Success is a gradual realization of a goal
  • Time, the constraint we give ourselves, dictates our feelings of failure and success
  • If we can focus on the process, and actively pursue reference experiences, we can never be failures

Have you ever heard the saying, “failure’s an event, not a person?” Well, if the adage holds true, then it would seem like failure’s not that bad. It’s just an event, similar to a birthday or a wedding. But it is bad, at least to the one experiencing it.

The problem is that we place too much of our identity on the success or failure of a goal, project, task, or desire. A failure is just an event, sure, but when that event is perceived to make or break someone’s life, well, it becomes harder to make that argument. So, what is a failure then, and why can it be so debilitating?

To start, failure can be defined in many ways. It can be seen as the inability to achieve a desired result in the time allotted for its achievement. It can be seen as the lack of self-discipline needed to become successful. It can even be considered the gap between where your life is now, and where you envision it going.

But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, each one of these definitions of failure has with it an important component: time. It’s time that ultimately validates whether you’re a success or failure. Let me explain.

If you don’t achieve a goal or finish a project in the time constraints given, it would seem that you’re a failure. But what if you extended or loosened those constraints? If your goal is to run a cashflow positive business within one year, for example, and you’re not in the black after 365 days, are you a failure? I’d say no, of course not! Instead, you may have fallen victim to a few common mistakes, causing you to feel like you failed.

First, you set a lofty goal. Great, that’s what you should always do! But, if and when you don’t achieve it, due in large part to it’s loftiness, don’t consider yourself a failure. Consider yourself a success for stretching yourself, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and attacking the process with tenacity. In this scenario, missing a stretch goal isn’t a failure, but not trying would be.

You see, goals are normally set prior to the pursuit of them. Well, duh! But think about that for a second. This means that we set dates and deadlines before we even understand how hard it will be to get there. We’re blessed with blind ignorance, but once that veil is removed, we see how much work is truly required to achieve a stretch goal and become successful. So, the time constraints you give yourself may not be realistic, and will have to be adjusted on the fly.

Second, and for goals that have a hard deadline, like the submission into a contest, failing to meet the deadline isn’t a failure at all! It was a valiant attempt that gave you learning experiences you can apply to the next opportunity that comes around. So, even though missing or losing a proverbial contest may feel like a failure, it’s a sign that you need to prepare and work harder for the next one. As long as you extend your timeframe to encompass the next opportunity, the failure becomes a much needed trial run.

In fact, this even applies to business. So what if your company fails in a massive blaze of glory? Chances are, it gave you a ton of learning experiences that you can now use on your next business project. In essence, the “failure” of your first business endeavor was a necessary learning experience to your eventual success.

Time Can Equal Success and Failure

Painted this way, failure looks quite rosy. It’s necessary, even! All you have to do, if you believe what you’ve read, is extend your time horizon and work hard until you achieve your desired results. But that’s not how failure works, huh? To us, when we experience failure, it feels like the end all be all. If it was as easy as adjusting your time constraints or focusing on the learning experiences, no one would feel like a failure, but sadly, almost all of us do.

The problem is that we identify too closely with our downfalls. We place our identity on the external achievement or failure of our actions. When we do this, we set ourselves up for failure. Our lives our dynamic, meaning that they’re ever-changing, but when we put too much weight on a single event, we force ourselves to think of our lives as static.

If you’ve ever achieved even a low level of success, you know that it’s fleeting. The memory fades, the feelings subside, and you’re left thinking “what’s next?” And if you’ve ever experienced even a low level failure, you know that the opposite is true also. The memory fades, the feelings subside, and you lift yourself up from your bootstraps to think “what’s next?”

So, even though we may view a single event as the linchpin to our triumph or failure, we know deep down that this isn’t true. Why? Because life is dynamic. It’s always moving. Each time you succeed or fail, you’ll have a near infinite amount of chances to succeed or fail again.

Failure is only seen as a negative when we view it as a single point in time. Static. It’s also seen as a negative when we focus on the the event itself and not the results. So what if you fail? You learned, didn’t you? That sounds like a success to me. Like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming: but who does actually strive to do the deeds…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Like Good ‘ol Teddy points out, failure is only a failure if you don’t try. Daring greatly, in whatever your endeavor, is an immediate success. Why? Because by daring greatly, you’re learning through the active pursuit of reference experiences. You’re learning and living, and in a world that’s almost 5 billion years old, yet is a place we only get to enjoy it for 100 years or less, you better get busy living.  

Success is a Process, Failure is an Event

I can’t stress enough how important time is to the success or fail equation. If you’re familiar with process orientation, you’ll know that success is a continuous process. However, failure seems like a single point in time. This warps our perception of what it means to be “successful” and what it means to be a “failure.”

For example, when we started our company, we thought things would take of quick (idiot!). We had done the pre-work, calling potential clients and validating our idea, and even signed a client before jumping in full time. From our naive perspective, we were ready to launch into the stratosphere.

So we started to run our company as our main source of income. And then we flamed out in a blaze of glory. Just kidding, that almost never happens. Instead, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Our effort was there, and the time we put into the business was definitely there, but the results weren’t. Were we a failure? Sure felt like it.

We were bleeding capital and our only client had left us. And when you’re running a cashflow business, “bleeding capital” means that you’re spending right through your savings on the way to living on the street. Every time we would get close to closing a deal and then lose it, I felt like we had failed. And let me tell you, we got close to a lot of deals, compiling my feeling of failure.

But, thanks to all the positive content I’d consumed over the years, even during my time in corporate bondage, I knew that I had to persevere. The difference, I knew, between success and failure, was not giving up. I kept replaying the Winston Churchill quote over and over in my head:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Or how about:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it’s the courage to continue that counts.” …that sounds applicable, too.

I had to believe that success was right around the corner, even if I didn’t know it. I was in the dip, as Seth Godin would call it, but I felt like I was moving forward rather than digging myself in deeper. Still, the success of our business was not happening in the time frame we had originally planned.

So what to do? Give up? I’d be lying to you if I said I never thought about it. But we were only a few months into the lifecycle of our business, and I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t a failure but was actually the crucible of entrepreneurship. You have to wear a few lumps before you find your successes. Lumps, however, are not the same as failures. Learning experiences, sure, but failures, no.

In essence, I had to expand my time horizon. We weren’t profitable in the time I had expected, but that just meant we had to keep moving forward. What we realized was that there was a lot of pre-work involved in starting a business, even one that had supposedly been validated prior to starting it.

As naive young entrepreneurs, we figured that our B2B productized-service would sell itself and that people would be clamoring to work with us. Like I said, naive.

What we didn’t understand at the time was that we would have to spend the better part of six months building and then maintaining relationships, so that our potential clients trusted us enough to invest in our value offering.

In that way, success really is a process but failure sure does feel like an event. Whenever a deal would fall through, it felt like failure. But when I had a successful call or got positive feedback on our offering? I didn’t feel like a success. That’s because it’s often hard to see the successes in the moment, because they slowly compound over time. Which means, of course, that we have to be cognizant of the process, orient ourselves to it, and believe that daily effort will result in our ideal life.

Time is the divide between success and failure. Giving up – shortening your time horizon – is a failure. Loving the process, and having the willingness to attack it every day, knowing that your effort will build on itself, is a success. It might not happen today, it might not happen tomorrow, but if you want it bad enough, and are willing to take your lumps, it will happen.

Because time spent learning is never wasted.