Home | Human Flourishing | Personal Development | Learning from Failure
(Previously published as: This Being the Case)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2015 (Edited August 2018)
Careful scrutiny of failures gives wisdom. We must take what we can, learn from the failure and move forward.
The things we have power to change and the things we must accept aren’t clearly distinguished one from another, making freewill complex. We jump from one choice to another. Each moment marred by choice. Life would be much easier if each decision were clearly marked, identifying which choice is right and which one is wrong. No such luck. Even when choices are clearly definable, the possible avenues are not readily defined as right or wrong; but each option has a variety of give and takes, rewards and risks.
We can look back, and with the wisdom of consequence, can evaluate the choice already made. Some of them sucked. Others were pretty good. We usually have our share of both. We can grieve the choices we made but the past has already been lived, the moment to choose has departed; we now must live with the new reality of the present.
We live in a world of trade-offs. Increasing the potential for profit, we may also increase the risk for failure. We can choose security, following the path of the masses afraid to deviate, or we can venture into a little danger. Unless we want the disasters of chaos, we can’t haphazardly ignore wisdom of proven experience. So, in our journeys, we must seek balance—some risk and some security. Life, full of variety, requires careful evaluation of options, wise judgment and occasional failure. We must work through this maze of living.
"Life, full of variety, requires careful evaluation of options, wise judgment and occasional failure."
Our current situations can give an objective measuring stick for the effectiveness of our choices. If our marriage is a wreck, our finances down the toilet, and we are downing our fourth double pour of scotch, we might not be doing so well. Misfortune usually isn’t the culprit. Changes are needed, better choice must be made. We must face the complexity of choice with more adeptness of predicting how the choice will improve or endanger our futures.
"When we fail, as we all do in our professional and personal lives, the risk is that we start to define ourselves by our failure."
Individual preferences give weight to different elements. I prefer a big yard and not as concerned about the distance to the nearest Wal-Mart; others find this crazy—they prefer a small yard and nearby shopping, entertainment and the hustle of a big city. Childhood’s and biological givens combine, building on each other, to form desires, creating an underlying mechanism that pulls and pushes towards different choices.
It’s easy to not do things that we are not inclined to do. Some people, for a complex construction of reasons, are inclined to do harm. This is foreign to most of us. We retaliate and protect but are not driven to hurt others. Inclinations don’t justify action. We can be inclined to an action or inclined towards a choice without that action or choice being right. As we expand our knowledge, we can soften harsh judgements by understanding the power of impulse; while still working for the larger good—the good of the individuals, and the good of the society.
Personal responsibility often must defy underlying impulses. We can’t deny the existence of drives, creating different challenges; but we can’t excuse harmful behavior because the actor was inclined to act that way. The human ability to act from their wise mind and identify, scrutinize and act in opposition to an impulse has huge social and individual implications.
Self-empowerment over inclination expands futures. Perhaps, we will never completely disentangle the arguments between freewill and predetermination—where freewill ends and predetermination begins. Somewhere between impulses and actions lies the dead zone, the space where we can interrupt the process, achieve clarity, and choose a beneficial action. This is self-empowerment.
The self-empowered mindset motivates action outside the dictates of internal programming. When we focus on freedom of choose, we become more interactive with opportunities and ultimately more productive. Conversely, helplessly blaming circumstances and inner impulses for failures, we lose vision of personal interventions available to change unfavorable directions.
Personal responsibility is not, however, always taking the blame, suffering with guilt, and labeling ourselves failures. We’re not personally responsible for every sorrow, pain, or illness we suffer. Life is complex; outside forces are constantly present—some events hurt. We may do the right things and still be disappointed. When outside influences inflict unavoidable pain, our self-efficacy is challenged. When we do the best we can and still fail, the failure wears on our resolve. Painful encounters offer wisdom, encourage self-reflection, and greater insights. But sometimes simply discourage.
"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Through thoughtful reflection, our behaviors that contributed to the failure may emerge. These insights become avenues for adjustment to improve futures choice. But sometimes no new wisdom is gleamed. The lack of reason challenges our resolve and life feels random. We want to know ‘why?’ but no answer rings true. Life just happened. Misfortune crashed into our plans and we must accept the unexplained events as our fate without manufacturing causes that don’t exist.
To heal and move forward, we must ask a different question—not an inquiry about why but a more probing question about the future. We must accept and ask, “This being the way it is, moving forward, what actions should I take?” Our answers to this wise question, allows for the unknown complexity to exist, while refocusing on action within our power to make.
We move forward. We don’t dance in the perplexing moment of unfairness, or the ugliness of blame. We take life as it is, in its rawness, and construct a positive ending—an ending of our choosing. Moving forward doesn’t magically heal hurt. The problem doesn’t dissolve. We still encounter grief and disappointment. But by redirecting our efforts, we empower ourselves, giving ourselves a way around the disappointments, over the gushing galleys of happenstance, and back to the lives we desire to live.
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