I’ve see this question emblazoned on t-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers – really any place where it can broadcast its inspirational message. I imagine it is supposed to be a message to fight fear, an empowering message that tries to get to the root of people’s hopes and dreams, a message that asks them to admit to the secret aspirations they harbor.
Whenever I see it, though, I can’t help flipping the message on its head, and wondering instead, “What would you do if you knew you would fail?” Perhaps this is the hidden meaning of the question, the deeper message that it is really asking. How afraid of failure are you? Too afraid to even begin? What defines success?
What Defines Success
We place a huge premium on what we consider success in this country, so much so that it can often seem overwhelming to even try to aim for what we really want. Failure can be disheartening, embarrassing, sometimes even expensive.
The thing about failure, though, is that all of us have to go through it – not once, not twice, not even a few times – but over and over in the course of lifetime. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Think about growing up. How many times did you lose your balance and fall over while learning to ride a bike? How long did it take you to learn to tie your shoes on your own, to button your buttons, to brush your own hair? We didn’t give up on these things; we learned. We tried over and over again, practicing until we succeeded, until these things became second nature, until we could not remember a time when we didn’t know how to do them.
Often, when we practice, when we try over and over again, doing our best and working our hardest, we end up succeeding. And if we don’t achieve exactly what we set out to do, it is not a measure of who are as people.
What Defines Success: Defining Success
Success should not be measured by the length of time it took to accomplish something, or how close the final outcome matches what one hoped to achieve. Success is what we learned while doing, how we grew, who we became while we let our efforts, and yes, our failures, shape us and teach us.
I am the failure queen – nearly everything I try to do goes wrong in some way (just ask anyone who knows me about my many baking experiments). And yet, sometimes, what I set out to do goes just right. Sometimes not in the way I expected, but sometimes greatly exceeding what I hoped for.
Instead of saying I failed to bake that loaf of bread that never rose, I learned about proofing yeast and made a killer pizza crust out of the dough. I can count the many loaves that came out too heavy, too well-done, or not cooked enough, but I also remember rolling and shaping the fragrant cinnamon loaf that made perfect toast, or braiding the golden challah that was quickly devoured at a potluck.
And through all of these flops, and these triumphs, I experienced bread baking – the feel of the dough squishing beneath my hands, the yeasty smell of bread rising in a warm kitchen, the texture of the crumb when a loaf is just cool enough to slice.
The next time you try to learn something new, don’t think of your mistakes as failures. They are practice for being the best you can be, and practice is not a set-up, or a precursor, to making our goals and dreams happen. It is the process of accomplishing them – failures and all. So, what defines success for you?