Success, Failure, and the Decision to Try

What can we learn from the likes of Thomas Edison? Edison is remembered as an inventor, his best known invention being the carbon filament light bulb. He is considered a brilliant man. A great success story.

We don’t think of Thomas Edison as a failure, do we?

Why not?

His efforts yielded more failures than successes.


How about Abraham Lincoln? President of the United States. A man from humble beginnings who was elected to the highest office in his country. Definitely a success story.

Before he was elected President, he failed at business, he failed to get into law school, and he failed to be elected to several positions in government from state legislature to Vice President.

So many failed efforts before his great success, yet we do not see Lincoln as a failure.

I would be willing to bet that almost anyone who has achieved great things has also experienced his or her share of failures. The big difference is that most of our failures are not as well known as those of Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln. Do you think Edison and Lincoln would feel embarrassed if they knew that their failures were well known and widely publicized? Do you think they should?

Absolutely not. We have this wonderful capacity to learn from our mistakes. An inventor may not have figured out what does work, but she has eliminated one more idea that does not work, bringing her closer to success. All our experiences, good and bad, successes and failures, shape us into the people we are.

In addition to showing by example that we can learn from and come back from our mistakes, Edison and Lincoln have come to embody the character trait of persistence. Their stories remind us that it is okay to keep working at something when it may seem impossible. It is also okay to try things that do not work out and move on.

In this instant gratification culture, it is okay if we don’t have an immediate solution.

It is okay to risk failure.

It is okay to risk looking stupid.

I think the only way to completely avoid failure is to do nothing.

I was thinking about persistence and fear of embarrassment at a moms’ group meeting. There was a presentation about “brain training,” in which a trainer runs the participant through challenging cognitive exercises for a straight hour. This training is largely targeted at kids who have some type of learning challenge, but it can be beneficial to anyone who wants to improve cognitive skills. Did I volunteer to try the training exercises in front of the group? No, I did not. You can guess why. What if I did a poor job at the exercise in front of everyone? Heaven forbid.

We moms also talked about the possibility that participants in this brain training program would become very frustrated. We could imagine our own children breaking down in tears in such a situation. The trainer explained that she would try to work just under that level of frustration – always pushing the student, but switching between exercises to avoid a meltdown. I think this type of program would go a long way in improving persistence as well as cognitive skills.

I know I have found myself stuck sometimes. Tempted to try something new. Unsure how it would go. Not wanting to try, fail, and look stupid in the process. Letting an opportunity pass by. There have been times when a fear of embarrassment has ruled my decisions. (Like passing on the chance to try out the brain training exercises, for example… On the bright side, I was faced with a similar situation the next day, and I volunteered to go first. A small bit of progress.)

Ultimately, isn’t an unwillingness to try even worse than trying and failing?

Rationally, I would answer “yes.” I think it is better to get out there and try than to remain stagnant for fear of failing. Emotionally, though, there is still that sticky point of not wanting to embarrass myself. I recently heard a friend use such a funny expression, “Build yourself a bridge, and get over it.” Okay, I will try to get over it. I will go ahead and ask that last question again, and I will try to believe it, not only in my mind, but in my heart as well, when I answer yes. How about you?

Ultimately, isn’t an unwillingess to try even worse than trying and failing?


2 thoughts on “Success, Failure, and the Decision to Try

  1. Melissa,
    I read Healthy Tipping Point and saw your question for Caitlin about your mountain bike, and doing a duathlon (sorry this comment has nothing to do with your post:). I just wanted to tell you that I did an Olympic disatance Tri last year on a mountain bike (bike portion was about 25 miles), without any trouble. I simply had road tires put on my mountain bike for around $40 total. The result is a ‘hybrid’ that will cost a lot less than buying a new road bike! I was happy with the way my bike did…it was my first Tri so I didn’t have hard-core goals…just wanted to finish! I did the bike portion at an average speed of 4 mph. Not super-fast, but not bad for a first-timer.

    Just wanted to let you know, and to say best of luck in your upcoming fitness events!

    • Thank you! That sounds like a great compromise, and like you, I would just want to do it and finish. Congrats on your tri and thank you so much for the idea!

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