Don’t Be Afraid To Fail


Reframe failure as an opportunity and a sign of good character.

It is natural and even justifiable to stigmatise failure. Ceteris paribus, an A student is better educated than a D student, a $15m-per-film actor has demonstrated more value to consumers than a broke actor, and the Olympic gold medallist is more deserving than the last to cross the finish line. Those who fail are cast out of the limelight and often condescended to. Nevertheless, you mustn’t forget the merits of failure, and you mustn’t be afraid to fail.

I steal this phrasing from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Six Rules” speech:

“So you can’t always win, but don’t be afraid of making decisions. You can’t be paralyzed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision and you know that it is the right thing to do, and success will come. So don’t be afraid to fail.
– Arnold Schwarzenegger

I also draw strength from similar sentiments by Elon Musk:

“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
– Elon Musk

The theme is fairly self-explanatory; failure becomes more likely as you push your personal boundaries, which also contains the most potential for growth. Personal development requires you to strike a balance between two extremes; a venture far beneath your capabilities will teach you nothing just as surely as a task that is way over your head. Efficient self-improvement requires an accurate and honest assessment of your current boundaries, your capacity to expand those boundaries, and appropriate tasks or goals to pursue. The harder you’re willing to work to catch up, the more outlandish a goal you can set and still have good prospects of growth.

I recently listed the seven major priorities in my life, in order:

  1. University
  2. Debating
  3. Gym
  4. Concepts of Confidence
  5. Dating
  6. Model United Nations
  7. Social / Family Life

This roughly dictates my time management and prioritisation. To justify a coffee date with a cute girl, for example, I might need to write a post for this website first. (Incidentally, guess why this one is being written?) Every few days, I mentally evaluate how well my time usage has reflected these priorities and can adjust accordingly. (As you might have guessed from the recent dearth of posts on this website, I’ve been devoting a little too much time to #5-7…)

This strategy has worked… but not well enough.

In the past two weeks, I’ve realised that I simply cannot maintain all these priorities to my expected standard without running a very real risk of failure in some of them… especially my university studies. Spending four days at a national debating tournament, then four days at a Model United Nations tournament, comes at the cost of eight days that could have been spent improving my last electromagnetism problem set or keeping up with my computational physics course.

More bluntly, I might fail university this semester.

That has scared the hell out of me for a few days now. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to complete my studies in a timely fashion – there’s a limited window of opportunity to be a fighter pilot afterwards! – and have previously struggled with imposter syndrome relating to my physics studies. The prospect of seeing a failing grade on my transcript quite literally kept me up for hours some nights…

… but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ll grant that this might be the sleep deprivation or caffeine talking (it’s 4am and I’m studying at university), but I’ve also generally come to terms with the real prospect of failure this semester and that life is just going to suck for a while. While the emotional and logical processes that led to this calmness weren’t particularly structured, I can identify a few basic factors I’m currently hinging my tranquility upon.

1. Context of Failure

It’s very easy to dramatize failure. In particular, the long term consequences of failing at university (poor GPA for employment, longer graduation time, etc.) looked disastrous to me. In a moment of clarity, I took a step back and contextualised the situation in a much more positive light. For example:

  • Fighter pilots get hired without degrees anyway – my GPA probably won’t mean jackshit to a USAF recruiter.
  • Let’s face it, my GPA isn’t crash hot anyway. A failure out of god-knows-how-many-subjects likely won’t make that much of a difference to it.
  • The reasons for that failure (such as excelling at debating on an international level) are probably even more attractive to other employers than a slightly better GPA.

Should I still avoid failure if possible? Sure, but it’s not the end of the world if I do fail. No-one will die, I can still pursue my dreams, and I’m still going to be a goddamn awesome man despite the setback. Knowing you can be bent, but not broken, is often all the motivation you need to keep going.

When faced with failure, put it in its place. Remember that most risks – barring perhaps some natural disasters – don’t catch you from behind. You were probably fully cognizant of the risk (knowing you can fail university subjects is pretty obvious) or at least peripherally aware. You are facing failure because you are the sort of person that puts themselves in situations where failure is possible.

That’s a sign of strong character and a will to improve yourself, which you should consider more valuable than any tangible success. Money can’t buy a good conscience when you look at yourself in the mirror.

2. Benefit of the Possibility to Fail

The will to improve yourself is intrinsically valuable, but it’s even more reassuring to identify a clear mechanism through which the risk of failure can help your personal development. When juggling my priorities first became stressful, I rather naturally assumed that I just don’t have enough time for everything.

In truth, almost everyone, barring extreme workaholics or the absurdly disadvantaged, could devote more time to personal development without cutting into necessary recuperation and relaxation time. I don’t really get much benefit or pleasure out of the last five minutes of my morning shower, or the ten minutes I spend aimlessly reading a stray tabloid while my dinner cooks. Teddy Roosevelt famously drew blood from the stone of each spare minute of his life; why don’t I do the same?

The answer is that most people are not limited by time, but by discipline.

I spend five minutes too long in the shower because it’s tough to get out. I read a stray tabloid while cooking because I can’t be bothered heading back upstairs to keep studying for such a short period of time. In part, I am struggling with university because time that could have been spent studying or working on assessment is instead sunk into various meaningless activities throughout my day.

The pressure to pass my subjects while maintaining all my other interests has made me hyperconscious and resentful of these time sinks. For example, while waiting for my hair to dry after a shower, I no longer trawl through Facebook aimlessly; I watch Mad Men for a while and take notes on character traits I’d like to emulate. (Don Draper’s vocal pacing is terrific for guys.) As the pressure mounts, I’m sure I’ll eliminate even more of these time sinks.

Eventually, I may reach a point where I am genuinely limited by time and an inherent need for relaxation, and it becomes physically necessary to cut down my priorities. Until then, this pressure is making me more efficient and improving my work ethic. In the long run, I reason that this stronger work ethic will do me more favours than a slightly higher GPA (at the cost of singular focus) ever could… so I consciously decide to maintain the risk of failure.

If this strategy doesn’t work, or I do reach that time-limited point, I can always reevaluate my time use. Right now, the potential payoff seems worth the risk of failing my first university subject(s), so I’ll stick with it.

3. Possibility to Succeed

Just because you accept or even enjoy the risk of failure, does not mean you should accept failure itself. You might learn simply by failing more often, but the bulk of your personal development will come through your attempts to mitigate that risk and succeed anyway. I’m constantly driven by this advice:

“Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like hell.”
– Peter Brock

Failure won’t be the end of the world for you, but it’s not a terrific outcome either. The first question you must honestly ask yourself is: What are the odds of succeeding?

I stress ‘honestly’ there, because it’s also easy to dramatise your odds of failure. I waded through some missed lectures on Lagrangian Field Theory last week and rashly concluded there was absolutely no way I would pass the course. After a hard slog of a week, I’m a little more optimistic about my chances. Moreover, I reminded myself that I’ve been equally certain I would fail previous courses, yet passed them anyway with effort and obviously a passable (if not absolutely first-grade) intellect.

Hype yourself up! Convince yourself success is possible despite your initial misgivings. You’re not facing these obstacles just for the hell of it… rather, you were convinced at some point you could kick their ass and succeed anyway. Channel that motivation again, and ask yourself the second question: What are you going to do about it?

Am I willing to study till 5am to catch up on my studies?

Am I willing to decline a party invitation to write speeches instead?

Am I willing to eat nothing but sausages, frozen veg, and milk so I can afford to travel to my debating and United Nations events?

You bet. If I can take away just one lesson from my experiment with biting off more than an extensive and gluttonous family can chew, it’s that the reward from living life so richly is worth tenfold the happiness I sacrifice trying to juggle every priority at once. Come to terms with failure, then do your very best to avoid it anyway.

There are myriad quotes I could cap this article with (and I’ve just alluded to Schwarzenegger’s “living rich” philosophy), but perhaps my favourite is a Roosevelt excerpt:

“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; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, 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.”
– Theodore Roosevelt

Perhaps I will fail this semester, despite my best efforts. Maybe it will even have regrettable long-term consequences that won’t be offset by the skills I build in other areas. Hell, overloading myself could be an objectively bad decision that I’ll look back on and think, “Damn, Jack, you knew the value of focus. Why didn’t you pick one pursuit and knock it out of the park?” So to my possible, future, rather wretched self, I respond:

At least I failed by trying to get too much out of life.”