Inspirational speakers frequently share anecdotes of failures by otherwise successful people. Certainly, most of us have heard the stories about Abraham Lincoln’s numerous failed attempts at winning elected office, the times he was fired, and the health struggles he and his loved ones faced on his path toward the Oval Office. Mark Zuckerberg, the entrepreneur behind the likes of Facebook and Instagram, tells stories of his failed business ventures prior to striking it big with social media. Indeed, no Zuckerberg story is complete without a mention of his decision to drop out of Harvard University. There are no secrets about Donald Trump’s six bankruptcy declarations prior to running for President of the United States in 2016. Hedy Lamarr, an Austro-Hungarian actress, famously earned accolades for her looks and acting ability. However, she attributed her ability to look glamorous by the awareness that she ought to “stand still and look stupid.” But Lamarr was not stupid in the slightest. She designed a method of communication that utilized frequency hopping technology to aid in the effort to fight World War II. The descendants of her invention are still utilized in today’s wi-fi, Bluetooth, and mobile phone operations. And every college football fan knows the Cinderella story about the roadblocks in the way of an undersized, underweight quarterback. Doug Flutie, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback out of Boston College, wrote personalized letters to every NFL team looking for a chance to try out for quarterback before the Buffalo Bills finally gave him his opportunity. Flutie, after failing in the league a decade earlier and going on to play professionally in Canada, had a relatively successful stint in the NFL in his second go-around. He played for the Bills, the San Diego Chargers, and the New England Patriots, where he backed up Tom Brady. Among his other accomplishments, Flutie is the only NFL player to successfully score on a drop kick play in the NFL in the last 80 years.
All these folks are people we’d very likely call successful. Lincoln is one of the most respected presidents in American history. Zuckerberg is immensely wealthy. Trump is known around the world. Lamarr is still revered in film and science lore 23 years after her death. And clips of Flutie’s game-winning Hail Mary pass to lead Boston College to victory over Miami in 1984, a week before winning his Heisman, will be shown on highlight reels for generations. When we share their stories, we seem to share them in a way that leads us to believe that their successes in life are a direct result of their roadblocks and failures elsewhere. While we need not be afraid of failure, success in life is probably a little more complicated than having survived a string of previous failures.
Why do so many inspirational stories focus on failure? Would Rudy Ruettiger have been an interesting character in a movie had he not been a small, non-athletic, poor high school student? Probably not. Dozens of players “walk-on” to college football teams every year. But only Rudy has a movie about his life. There seems to be something to this whole idea that says, “If I fail, I need to pick myself up and keep at it.” We are inspired by tales such as these. Sometimes, we even might develop our own aspirations. “If he can do it, so can I!” What this neglects, however, is that we’re not all starting on a level playing field. Sometimes people are in positions to be able to afford a string of failures on the ladder to success. Other times, they are not.
Think of a professional golfer. A professional golfer has probably hit thousands of poor golf shots in his or her lifetime. But that’s because that golfer has the luxury of taking many thousands of shots at the range and on the course. Not everyone can afford the best golf equipment or the purchase of three buckets of balls every afternoon. Not everyone can afford a top-notch golf coach. Not everyone has the time to spend hitting thousands upon thousands of shots on the driving range to perfect their swing. In this case, failure is a luxury. Same is true for Michael Jordan. We always hear about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school team as a sophomore. What gets left out of that story is that he was still rather small that year and the player chosen over him was about a foot taller at the time. He played that year on the junior varsity team, where he continued to develop. We also hear how he missed over 9,000 shots in his career, including 26 that would have been game-winners. That’s 9,000 more missed shots in the NBA than I have missed! But he also made more than 12,000 shots. So that kinda puts it into perspective a little bit. His 9,000 missed shots did not lead to his 12,000 successful shots. They just kinda happened. And I’d be labeled a dreamer (or worse!) if I were to suppose that if I miss 9,000 shots, I’d certainly make the next 12,000.
Failure isn’t something that happens to us so that we can eventually become successful. At the same time, there are many, many instances when we can learn from our failures. It can sound like a paradox, but two things can be true at the same time. It isn’t good to fail and we can learn from our failures. I think that’s a healthier way to look at it. Here’s an example of what I mean. In a previous lifetime, I used to sell shoes. Part of my job was designing in-store displays. Usually, the in-store display featured a low-cost shoe. The idea was that it would draw people into the shoe department. Once there, the shoe sales team could easily sell those shoes and then “upsell” more shoes to customers who wandered by. Working on commission, I thought it would be a good idea to change up the shoe display. Instead of a low-cost shoe, I decided to create a display featuring a more expensive shoe that would yield me a higher commission. It was a nice shoe, really. And I thought, if I can sell more of these, then I’ll be taking home a pretty sweet paycheck! A week after putting up the display, I became frustrated that not a single pair of those shoes had sold. What was wrong? I asked the store manager for some guidance, and he told me what the problem was. He had wanted to give me the opportunity to learn for myself why those shoes didn’t sell. They were simply at too high a price point for the purpose of an in-store display. As soon as I changed the display back to a lower-cost shoe, the display shoes once again began to sell rapidly. I had made a decision, my decision failed, and I learned from that failure. That’s an example of how failure can be used as a helpful tool. I also missed out on some commission dollars during that week, and the store’s shoe sales were down. That’s why failure isn’t a good thing.
This is a small example, but what about when there’s much more on the line. When we’re talking about shoe sales, it’s nice to make more money. But that isn’t a life-and-death situation. When we think about the fire in Maui over the summer, that is a life-and-death situation. And sadly, it was a situation that demonstrated that failure can cost lives. As the winds picked up on the leeward side of the island, and erosion valleys running down the mountain created a wind tunnel that forced the wind toward the town of Lahaina, firefighters incorrectly declared a brush fire under control. No alarms were sounded. Residents were not instructed to leave. Then, the wind caused the fire to “jump” the highway and to advance toward the near complete destruction of the beautiful historic town. Nearly 100 people lost their lives. While there is certainly learning that can come from this kind of failure, it really should not have happened this way. There isn’t any room for failure when it comes to situations involving events like school shootings, fires, military operations, or other disasters.
Failure isn’t inherently good and it isn’t inherently bad. It simply is. I have had some failures in my life that have brought me tremendous learning opportunities. I have also had failures that set me back. At best, some of them were neutral. I would argue that it’s important that we look at failure through a healthy lens. Some times and places are better equipped for failure, and other times and places are not.
If we think of our golfer, then we know that the range is a really good place to fail. A professional golfer, with lots of time and money, can afford to hit many, many poor shots on the range in order to perfect their shots when they truly count. The range, in this case, is a time where failure is ok. Or let’s think of a military marksman. While marksmen are chosen because of their proven abilities, they still need to practice. And a good time to practice would not have been during the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, a ship captain who had been abducted by pirates. The snipers who freed Phillips had virtually zero room for error during his rescue. While rocking on rough seas, three snipers took simultaneous shots, hitting his captors and leaving him unscathed. An errant shot easily could have injured or killed Phillips. Instead, the time to practice was on the firing range under different weather and lighting and distance configurations. Missing a target in a safe range has no consequences. Missing in a real-life situation can be deadly.
Sometimes, we simply need to let people do what they’re good at. Try as I might, I will never be an NFL quarterback. Believe me, I’d love to throw a Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass! But that’s not where my gifts are. That also doesn’t mean we should be fearful of trying new things. We do have to be bad at things before we’ll ever be good. At a certain point, however, it becomes clear that we either do or do not have gifts that make a task seem easy. I can hit some fairly decent golf shots. I will never qualify for a PGA tour card. And both are ok.
Failure can be a tremendous tool if we fail in the right places. Failing a mathematics test in high school is a good way to fail, while missing calculations that would return astronauts safely home from the moon is not. Failing at landing an aircraft on a flight simulator is fine. Failing to land an actual airplane properly could prove deadly. We can’t get out of life without failing at least some of the time. And most of the things we try are things we’ll fail at, at least at first. But if we fail when and where we should, and succeed when we must, we ought to feel pretty darn good about ourselves. Rushing to shame and blame isn’t helpful. Working to get better is. And Jesus calls us to continually try to get better. Even when we fail and even when our failures are catastrophic, we are called to continually improve.