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To Live an Epic Life, Embrace Epic Failure

“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
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?

Comments (17)

  • So good, Seth. My epic fear of failure has stolen too much from my journey – from too many of us.

    Thank God he continues to scrape the fear off my soul. Fear is no longer a constant friend, only a minor acquaintance who drops in uninvited from time to time.

    Now, I ask myself, “Why not?” rather than, “What if?” I don’t berate my mess-ups like I once did. I actually find myself looking forward to all the lessons I have yet to learn. Crazy! And wonderful.

    Thanks for challenging us to live and not just exist while we’re sojourners here.

  • As I read this I thought about my son who continues to be in a hard place, blaming much of it on me. I think he has glimpses of recognizing what he can learn by failure, but they are fleeting. I end up feeling like I have failed in relationships, but here is the rubI need to fail, so I can turn the things I shouldn’t try to control over to Jesus.

    (And I have also failed in timely reading of the materials you sent me.)

    Shalom.

  • Well done, Kathy! Glad to see you proudly (as befits your last name) owning your sense of failure. You are wonderfully successful in my book, caring for others even when it’s less than gratifying.

  • Failure, while incredibly difficult to endure and go through, if seen in the proper light, has always taught me more than my successes , the challenge is to take on life, knowing the risk of failure, so when it happens, and it will, it will be simply a hurdle to overcome. after several epic failures in my work life as a young man, I was devastated and figured it was over. as I look back it was the failure that launched me into the successful craftsman I am today (10000 plus hours and still going…). never thought about the challenge of increasing the risk factor. hmmm must rethink and move the boundaries I have set up.

  • The greatest weapon the enemy has against us is not knowing the Word of God – ‘perfect love casts out all fear’. It took me a long time to realise exactly how much God my Father truly loves me, cares for me, protects,provides for me, trains me, disciplines me and now ‘failure’ has become an opportunity to ‘consider it pure joy’ (James 1 v 2) because that puts a very different perspective on things – He doesn’t see my failures only my potential. What a Father!

  • Its interesting Seth that some of the origins of the stress camping experience Outward Bound came about when during World War II the British were observing that often pilots would have to ditch into the English Channel older airmen would live while younger and seemingly more vibrant servicemen would give up and die. The hypothesis was that older people had experienced more scenarios of failure and tenacity in the face of it and this cultivated a “will to live” which was more informed. Your missive is very good in reminding us that while failures invariably have some consequence few are terminally defeating. And in an odd paradox the celebration of God’s grace in the face of falling is sweeter than the shouts of triumph in a season of success. Thanks for this reminder.

  • “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
    – John Wooden, American coach (1910-2010)

  • Great point Seth. I have gotten quite comfortable with failing. I cannot get comfortable with the fact that others are not comfortable with me failing. That is what I need to get over as that fear constantly tries to set in.

  • Wonderful post. Inspiring and terrifying. Any tips for someone who has sailed safely through 35 years without much failure and is facing it in a big way for the first time? Any comments about readjusting life for others in the process? It’s not just me…I have a husband and two kids to think about as I hear God calling me away from a job that provides for a very comfortable life.

  • Hey Seth,

    I hope you are well. Glad to connect with your blog again, social media exposure strikes again!

    I just shared this video topic with some of my students who struggle with growing up too soon and thought it is worth a look on this topic of failing and achieving. Watch both part 1 and 2 for the full gist!

    love ya Seth,

    http://vimeo.com/84022735

  • Megahn, thanks for the encouragement.

    I’ve been meditating on this for a while. Some thoughts here:
    https://www.sethbarnes.com/?category=Reaching%20your%20destiny

    My main thing is to involve someone who is experienced in helping navigate these difficult waters. You’ll need to fortify your courage as you attempt some experiments.

    And what if you fail? What will your kids think? You will not starve and you will set them free to take similar risks and to not worry about failure so much.

  • Eric!

    Great to hear from you. Great video here, too. In talking about the long game, that seems to be my life. It seems just like yesterday when you were on the race and we were trying to figure out what this process was. And I’m just now connecting the dots.

    So, catch me up on your long game when you’ve got time.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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