Editorial: Failure is for Winners

TrailRunMag 30.07.2019

Feel like a bit of a loser? That ain’t no bad thang if the lessons are learned and you rise back up to continue the fight, writes TRM Editor and closet America’s Got Talent watcher Chris Ord, in his latest editorial, as published in Edition #32 (subscribe here, purchase single edition digital or print here)

My daughter fumbles on the piano keys. The storm clouds don’t rumble gently on over, rather with the instant crackle of lightning they snap-flood the room in darkness.

“I’m no good at this. I can’t do it. I don’t want to play piano anymore.”

Quitsville. Her Alicia Keys moment is over, aged nine. Not because she can’t do it. Not being able to do something isn’t what stops anyone from actually doing anything. What stops people is capitulating to the feeling of failure, letting it beat you. What buys the one-way ticket to Quitsville, is not failure itself but a thought that it is omnipotent in stopping your journey cold.

I’m not arguing that failure isn’t omnipotent – it is – what I’m saying is that it is omnipotent in the creation of your success. Without failure, you will fail. The only way to succeed is, as John C. Maxwell famously said, fail early, fail often and fail forward. Indeed, the more you fail the more likely you are to win. That is, so long as you don’t stop trying.

Says one of the all-time basketball greats, Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”

I’m contemplating how we view failure because of late, failure is all around me. Not just because I’m dropping the balls of life. I’m regularly doing that. But if I have one superpower – apart from cramping – it’s that I’m okay with failure. Maybe because I’m so practised at it. It still hurts. It depresses. It stings. It slows me. It still threatens to stop me. But I kind of mooch on through it, dusting off the flecks of fuck up, sighing through the disconsolate weight of disaster management. And I’m lucky, because I’m not a doctor, nurse, paramedic or work in any emergency services – so no-one’s life depends on my fuck up or on my failure. Indeed, that particular group has my unending respect for they enter the ring of potential doom every working day where decisions they make, failures they face, are literal life and death and they take that on regardless. True heroes.

Anyway, failure is all around. If you look, it’s a constant in our day, week, month and year. Lost the election. Lost the deal. Lost the argument. Lost the match. Lost the race. Lost my car keys. Lost my love. Lost my mojo. Lost my mind. Maybe just got lost on trail.

But it’s about perspective. That is, how you frame something. Failure is easy to frame as a negative because it feels negative. But here’s what I tell my daughter when she hits the wrong note: failure is just another step towards success. Therefore, it’s a good thing. Without taking those steps – without making the mistakes, without failing – you will never succeed. You’ll actually never learn the song.  It’s impossible. Failure is a good thing.

Luckily, there’s a teacher better respected than me that has more power over my daughter’s developing mind. YouTube viewings of America’s Got Talent highlights (don’t judge me) drive home the message as we watch a teen stumble, forget her lines and dash off stage all but defeated by failure. She gets off stage and has a decision to make. Does she exit stage left forever crushed by the embarrassment of her failure to remember the words to a song that was meant to project her to pop stardom? Instead she checks in on her lines with her mum, turns around and re-enters the arena, the crowd still reeling from that awkward moment, the judges busy checking on who’s next. She starts again. She falters. One sympathetic judge mouths the lyrics. And she sings her broken heart out. The talent is there, her timbre injected with an added dash of raw human emotion. She was exposed and vulnerable. But she carried on when the easier decision would have been to disappear from her moment, just another forgettable blip in a morass of awkward TV moments.

Failure is also on my mind because Brene Brown is hitting town this August. She’s a multiple New York Times bestseller who is renowned for one of the most viewed TedTalks of all time, revolving around her study of failure, shame, courage and the power of vulnerability: the importance of walking back out onto the stage after forgetting your lines.

Taking this to the trail and especially the ultra-distance, failure is critical to achieving what we desire. You have to not make the distance before you do. You have to feel sick before you feel good. You have to get the gear wrong before you get it right. You have to get the pace wrong, to know what pace will work. You have to fall over, many times, to figure out how not to.

And the metaphor of eating a face full of dirt is perfect. Taste the dirt. Decide if it tastes awful (it does in a literal sense, of course). Or decide if it tastes like just another step towards success. And therefore, the same dirt actually tastes sweet.

Ask any winner. Hell, ask any ultra-finisher: what is the most important factor to your success? The answer is failure. No other ingredient is as critical.

Back in the loungeroom, my daughter fingers the keys timidly. She glares at the sheet music. Her slumped shoulders slowly roll back, her spine straightens, and she turns the anger and emotion of failure to action. She starts the piece again, her head rocking into the rhythm and melody as she passes the troublesome bar and flows on into the second half of the piece.  I swell with pride as my daughter embraces her failure. Then I contemplate my failure to get out of bed early enough for a much-needed training run. The guilt abates. There’s always tomorrow. I’ll try again then. And again. And again.

Chris Ord is the founder and editor of Trail Run Mag, freelance media producer, owner of trail run tour and event company, Tour de Trails and an adventure tourism consultant for TRC Tourism

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