Recently, I was listening to a TED Talk from General Stanley McChrystal. He was talking about leadership lessons he learned in his long military career. One lesson he shared has stuck in my head ever since:
Leaders can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.
General Stanley McChrystal
He came to that conclusion after many times during his career where he missed the mark, didn’t achieve an objective or made an error in judgement. Thankfully, most of these situations happened during training or in relatively low-risk situations, allowing him and his team to learn and improve.
Certainly war is the ultimate high stakes games, where lives are literally on the line with every decision. But this idea – letting someone fail, letting them feel the sting and the consequences of that, but not allowing that to be the end of the story – seems wildly important in every aspect of life.
It seems to me that we, at least the American brand of “we”, talk a good game about the importance of failure, but we’re woefully bad at actually doing it.
Of course we DO it; we all fail all the time. But instead of failing being a valuable learning experience, it becomes a defining experience that stops growth cold.
How many of us stopped doing something, maybe even something we loved, because we “weren’t good at it?” How many of us, after one humiliating loss or rejection, turned away from a hobby or sport entirely? How many of us have been so burned by a friend or a lover that we’ve never really allowed our hearts to fully open again?
We failed at something and as a result defined ourselves as a failure.
It’s a huge and illogical leap, but then much about the way we think and act is often illogical. Maybe an unkind teacher or impatient parent made us think that way, mocking our flailing attempts. Maybe we heard it muttered about us on the playground or at the hands of authority. Maybe it was always assumed about us because of our skin or our gender or the side of the tracks we grew up on. Somehow, we got the message that because we failed in the moment, we were a failure, full stop.
That label changes everything. It limits what we reach for, how we allow ourselves to be treated, the expectations we maintain for ourselves – in other words, the entire trajectory of our lives.
This label not only crushes our self-esteem, but I suspect it’s also at the heart of the blaming and shaming that so often reveals itself in our adult lives. We savagely mock others who have made a bad decision instead of empathizing. We look for a scapegoat for our misery instead of acknowledging our own culpability in the decisions and choices we made that got us in this situation. We won’t help others, because we label them as “failures” without taking the time to understand their efforts or circumstances.
Whether or not we have had the privilege of having parents, teachers or bosses who knew how to lead, how to let us fail without letting us be a failure, we can still learn this skill for ourselves. We can feel the pain of failing, learn what lessons there are to be learned and to move forward. We can be that leader for others in our lives, helping them to reframe their painful mistakes and losses.
In the past few weeks, my eldest nephew has experienced a breakthrough in his health. After a debilitating injury, he struggled in school, in relationships, and with an enormous amount of physical pain. He internalized these bad experiences and doubted himself a lot. I’m so relieved to say that he had experienced a relief from his physical pain, which is allowing him to move forward in his education and his life.
This has been an incredibly fraught time for all of us who love him. Watching him struggle and being largely helpless to fix any of it has been unbearable. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if this struggle could change his life for the better. Will he discover new depths of compassion and empathy? Will the knowledge that he had the fortitude to survive these two brutal years give him the strength to take on other challenges, and the confidence to stick with it? Will he have a deeper understanding of both the fragility and resilience of the human body?
Those of us who loved him couldn’t fix what was wrong and we couldn’t keep these past months from being difficult and full of failures… but if we did our jobs right, he will not define himself as a failure. The delays and struggles he has experienced will teach him invaluable lessons that will help him as he moves forward in life, not mire him where he is now.
In our popular culture, we toss around phrases like “failure is not an option” or “if you’re not winning you’re losing.” Competition is healthy, as is striving. But without giving ourselves space and opportunity to learn the lessons when we fail, the benefits of competition quickly break down. We cede ground too quickly, stop innovating and allow our culture to stagnate and calcify.
What if instead we encouraged each other to do our best and, when that best isn’t good enough, we don’t look away in shame or embarrassment but rather work together to assess the situation and recommit to trying again, this time a little bit wiser?
What if we stop labeling humans – be they our political enemies, our bozo brother-in-law, or ourselves – as failures? What if we can become the kind of leaders, the kind of parents, the kind of friends, who can give the people we love room to experiment and possibly fail, without letting them become a failure?