Finding Fulfillment in Failure

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas A. Edison

How does your fear of failure limit you? How can facing failure bring fulfillment?  When you come to a fork in the road, do you choose the paved, well-lit path or the dirt road with fog up ahead that makes you a bit uneasy but peaks your curiosity and stirs your soul?

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I can think of lots of things, thousands even.

I would sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

I would fly a fighter jet and land it on an aircraft carrier.    

I would tour with Janet Jackson as a backup dancer.

But what is the point if that is not reality? I think the intent behind the exercise is to uncover the big dreams that are hidden behind our fear of failure. But isn’t dreaming big still just dreaming if we don’t recognize failure is always possible?  So when we recognize that possibility, our list shrinks. But if you are willing to fail, the list gets more interesting.  And what if you take it one step further?

What would you do if you knew you were going to fail and facing failure would change you – maybe slightly over time or profoundly in an instant.  

What moves you so strongly that your fear of failure takes a backseat to what you are compelled to do? When do you know in your heart that shrinking from a challenge, again, will leave you feeling so miserable that diving in and failing will actually bring fulfillment?  

How many times have you been convinced you are going to fail at something, walked away, and beat yourself up knowing that was the wrong choice? I can’t even count how many times I’ve done that.

Fear and anxiety are too often our focus rather than our fuel. Our roadblock rather than our guidepost.     

Once we convince ourselves we are going to fail, what if we see the fear and anxiety as signs pointing us in the direction we need to go, the path of our authentic journey, and choose to do it afraid and anxious. What if we bring fear and anxiety along for the ride.

Not only are we exhilarated by the brave choice, but we are fundamentally changed by what happens when we face a challenge despite our perceived limitations and unattached to the outcome. In challenging ourselves, we are changing ourselves.  

Not only do we challenge the capacity of our courage, but we challenge our definitions of success and failure, leading to new experiences that are so much more than an exercise in accumulating accomplishments or collecting adventures. They stoke the fires of metamorphosis, breaking down walls and creating space for and giving life to our authentic selves.   

There are a thousand ways to fail. You can fail big or you can slightly miss the mark. Be willing to master both. Be even more willing to challenge your story of how you’ve failed in the past and what failure looks and feels like now. To be clear, I am in no way saying, try to fail. I am not suggesting that you give less than your all, whatever that may be at the time, to see what failure feels like.  I’m saying recognize when you believe failure is most certain and your fear feels too strong to overcome, but you hear a whisper – or maybe a scream – suggesting you take that path anyway. And rather than turn a deaf ear or have one foot in and one foot out, you dive in wholeheartedly.


Here are three tips on using failure to find fulfillment –

Playing it out – Fear and anxiety are fueled by the stories we tell ourself. “Failure is embarrassing, defining even. People will see me struggle and judge me. People will discover I’m a fraud. Failure exposes my imperfection, making me unlovable.” The only way to change that story is to play it out in real life and change the ending. Find out what really happens when you fail. Get to know the person who exposed herself knowing there was likely pain and failure and embarrassment ahead.  Feel the connection to others that come from those experiences. Recognize your role as the writer of your story and start changing the ending page by page.

Seeing the Signs – Begin to see fear as fuel rather than yet another failure. Fear and anxiety can be reactions that guide you to exactly where you want to be. When given two choices, one challenging and one safe, I feel it instantly. Something stirs deep inside me, my mind starts racing, sometime my eyes even start tearing because in that moment I feel the power of that choice. Will I shrink back to safety or will I move through the fear of failure, lack and hurt and open myself to discover who I am on the other side. Those tears are surely tears of fear, but not the fear of the challenge. Those tears are from the fear that I will make the safe choice again which I know will be my greatest failure and will cause the most painful lack, the lack of fulfillment.

Expanding Your Horizons – Failure can look and feel far different than what we’ve been telling ourselves all these years. The more we experience it, the more comfortable we are with it. As that comfort grows, our horizons expand beyond what we ever dreamed possible. We learn that we are not defined by our failures but by our choices to show up and challenge ourselves. We learn that we don’t fail as much as we thought we would. We learn that our traditional definitions of failure no longer have a place in our story. And with all of this, the limits, the boundaries and the walls that the fear of failure built over so many years come crumbling down and our lives become limitless.   

Choosing to fail may just make you a bigger success than you ever dreamed.


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