I failed. Failed. Failed with a capital F.
I looked the woman in the eye. I knew I her from high school, but I still asked her to spell out her name. She said it fast, but I got what I needed. I meticulously wrote down her comment and raced back to the newsroom.
When it came time to quote her for my story, her name escaped me. I skipped to next sentence in my story and then to the next and to the next. The minutes were ticking off. I was on a deadline. I had to get the story to my editor.
Later when my editor asked for the name, I completely butchered it. Some would call it a brain cramp, a mistake, an error. Whatever the word, I messed up the cardinal rule of Journalism: get the names right, get the details right.
I had failed.
The myth of flawless perfection
We fear failure more than anything in society today. Society places such a strong emphasis on perfection in everything that we do, that we often start to compare ourselves, our wins, our losses under the harshest of ultraviolet rays and societal standards. It’s a no-win situation.
If we win, we didn’t win big enough. If we lost . . . well that’s just not satisfactory. We have to do it over again. We have to overcome. Failure is for losers. Nobody wants to be a loser.
I’m not talking fear of messing up brain surgery or the middle of a fire fight in a war zone — something where another person’s life is on the line. I’m talking about simple everyday failure: a messed up sales presentation, the strikeout instead of the game-winning homerun; the C instead of an A-plus on the term paper.
Lemons from lemonade
Failure is messy. It’s scary. But under the right perspective, it can be extremely helpful. When we pick ourselves back-up, when we learn from our mistakes, go outside our comfort zone, and stretch ourselves beyond recognized limits, we open ourselves back up for success.
Perfection is great to strive for, but it can’t be the be-end-all. Thomas Edison’s famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” His line has been quoted to the point of ad nausea, it’s been quoted and re-quoted so many times that it’s beyond being called cliché, but there’s no denying that it’s still true.
In a similar vein, Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, argues that a “willingness to court failure is actually a precursor to growth.”
Learning from the past
In my own example, I failed in a key spot, in one of the biggest stories that I had covered up to that point in my career, but I also learned from the experience. I have gone onto have many other wins throughout my career, but I never forgot about the lessons I learned that day.
I’ve been meticulous in making sure that I get the basic details right, be it the quote or the name or whatever. I’ve never wanted to make the same mistake twice; I’ve never wanted to let my readers, my editors or me down again.
In short, I took my moment of failure, my moment of frustration, and learned from it.
And isn’t that what life is all about?