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To Live an Epic Life, Embrace Epic Failure

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“I fear failure like a deer fears a lion because, while I don’t mind the chase now, I know I’ll ultimately tire. Truthfully, I don’t trust myself not to trade my dreams for stability as age creeps up on me.” – A 20-something blogger. How about you – do you trust yourself to not…
By Seth Barnes

“I fear failure like a deer fears a lion because, while I don’t mind the chase now, I know I’ll ultimately tire. Truthfully, I don’t trust myself not to trade my dreams for stability as age creeps up on me.” – A 20-something blogger.

How about you – do you trust yourself to not trade in your dreams for stability? When I was younger, I swore to myself that I’d never compromise on my dreams. I vowed to not encumber my dreams with the complications of lifestyle and financial obligations.

As I get older, I’m feeling like a salmon swimming upstream. My peers are preoccupied with risk management strategies. How do I make peace with the idea of greater risk? What if I fail? What if its not just a small failure, but an epic failure?

But then, how do we learn anything if not by failing?

We learn to walk by falling over hundreds of times. We learn to talk by mangling grammar. My daughter crashed our car within a month of learning to drive solo. Yet years later, she is a good driver.

Derek Sivers says, “When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning. To learn effectively, you must make mistakes and learn from them.” A muscle only grows if you work it till it begins to fail.

So many of us live scared of failure, yet we lose sight of all the simple ways we’ve failed in life and grown in the process. It’s the pattern that nature follows.

I was watching a documentary on the CERN project in Switzerland. It is certainly one of the greatest scientific undertakings in history. One of the physicists working on the project noted how frequently he and his colleagues fail.

They make a hypothesis and then design an experiment. Often the experiment lasts many years only to show that the hypothesis was wrong. So scientists have to learn to cope with repeated failure.

Savas Dimopoulos, one of the lead scientists, made an observation that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the secret of success.

Epic failure

Failure can mean pain in a lot of ways. The pain of time and resources lost. The pain of embarrassment. The pain of admitting that you were wrong. But to live an epic life, we have to make friends with the inevitability of failure and its attendant pain along the way.

Who doesn’t want to live an epic life? But who is willing to embrace the failure that that will entail? The greater the assets, relationships and reputation you acquire, the greater the cost of losing them. 

So, how do you jump from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm? 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman says, “Want to increase your own performance? Set high goals where you have a 50-70% chance of success. According to Psychologist and Harvard researcher the late David McClelland, that’s the sweet spot for high achievers.

“Then, when you fail half the time, figure out what you should do differently and try again. That’s practice. And according to recent studies, 10,000 hours of that kind of practice will make you an expert in anything. No matter where you start.”

Lately I’ve been recovering from some epic failures I made – personnel choices and leadership decisions that hurt. And now my choice is to play it safe and only do those things that are guaranteed to succeed or to double down and commit afresh to a life of learning through failure.

One thing that encourages me is that what has made the difference over the course of my life are the impossible dreams that I committed to. The ones where God had to show up and he did. 

Mary Douglas asks, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” As for me, in this new season, I’m going to re-commit to trying to follow the dangerous and narrow path that Jesus walked.

How about you? Have you made friends with failure? Has your commitment to grow diminished as you’ve grown older? It’s never too late to redouble your commitment – why not begin today?

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