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Learning how to fail

By Zayithwa Fabiano

Failure, missing the mark, making a mistake, getting it wrong, whichever way you describe it, is a part of life. It’s a part of the journey. Failure is viewed negatively. Failure is feared. Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand failure; perhaps we don’t know how to fail.

I have been a victim of failure countless times as all of you. I have only recently realized that there is a correct way to fail and a wrong way to fail. In a way one can fail at failure, as absurd as that may sound. I have been fearful of failure for years. I can’t pinpoint an exact time in my life when I began fearing failureGrowing up we were taught in school to work hard to avoid failure. We were ashamed whenever we failed. We may have faced various consequences when we failed. People deemed by society as failures are labeled as such and used as examples of what not to do and what not to become.

We are taught to flee from failure and not associate with failure. The fear of failure keeps us from trying things which we fear we may fail at, so we miss out on lots of great opportunities. I never tried various sports because I was afraid to fail. I have never applied for various scholarships, grants and schools for fear of failure. I have not approached certain people for fear of rejection

 But what if I had gone for them, what if I took a chance and was successful. What did I deprive myself? Let’s look at the flip side. What if I had taken the chance and failed anyway. Would I not have gained something from the experience? Didn’t I deprive myself by not allowing myself to fail?

A lady I work with is an inspirational failure. Linly is successful health worker and researcher. She is very good at her job, so full of life and gets on very well with people. However, Linly fails every day, she fails in so many ways, but you wouldn’t know it by her demeanor and conduct. She knows how to fail the right way. She is a winner at failure. She has mastered the art of failing.

 Linly understands that failure is learning opportunity for owns growth and understanding. When she fails she analyses the situation; why did she fail? What could she have done better? What worked? What didn’t? Post analysis, Linly closes that box and moves on to the next. She does not wear her failure as a shameful yoke around her neck. She does not self-shame, self-criticize or spend time in self-pity.

She understands that failure is not a reflection of who she is as a person. It’s not a measure of her competence. Nor is it a yardstick with which we should measure one’s value. Linly takes it to another level; she shares her stories of failure with others, so that we don’t have to repeat that failure. She shares her experiences for the benefit of others.

She doesn’t hide her failure like a shameful experience to be hidden from the world. Wouldn’t we all be better off if people shared their failures as such as they share their successes without being shamed or having it used against them? There should be failure stories as much as there are success stories being shared.

I have struggled with failure and the negative associations we attach to it. It has discouraged me, held me back and kept from a lot. On my journey of growth and self-discovery I have been learning how to work on this. Something that has really changed my view of failure was a lesson from my Dalai Lama Fellowship coach, Anthony Demuro. He gave me a great analogy; when a toddler is learning how to walk it will wobble, trip and fall many times.

 The toddler may put one foot forward and perhaps lean too much of his weight too hard on that foot and will stumble and fall. The baby will get back up and try again, perhaps this time trying stepping the other foot forward and leaning his weight lightly this time.

 Perhaps the baby leans too lightly and loses balance and falls again. This toddler will continue doing this trial and error for as long as it takes until he can walk. All through this process, the toddler’s parents do not criticize the baby, they do not shame him. They cheer they him on, they support the toddler and celebrate when he finally walks.

We are just like this toddler when we take a chance and try something. When we try and fail we are just like this toddler who is trying to walk. So why do we feel ashamed; why do we self-criticize each time  we fail when in fact we should be encouraging and cheering ourselves?

There is something we should all appreciate; every failure is another step closer to success, another step closer to us learning how to walk. This analogy gave me to new perspective to failure. Let’s learn how to fail productively.

Dr Zayithwa Fabiano, MBBS, Mandela Washington Fellow, Dalai Lama Fellow, YouthLead Ambassador writes from Malawi

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