Q14: Learning from Failure and Success

Question: In your own life have you learned more from your failures or from your achievements and success?

"God will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars." - Brennan Manning

What have I learned more from? My failures, unquestionably.  I am not saying it couldn't be the other way, but for most of us it isn't, and definitely not for me.  Let's talk about why. 

When I succeed I tend to reflect less.  I don't examine closely and carefully the reasons for my success.  I am prone to attribute my success to whatever I thought would make me succeed in the first place.  

Have you ever heard the joke about the Canadian man who whistled for at least 15 minutes everyday?  His friend asked him why he did that and the man told him that it keeps the elephants away.  His friend sputters and the man looks at him and says "Clearly it works, you never see elephants around here, do you?" 

That kind of reasoning is nonsensical but I think we often do much the same things when dealing with our achievements and successes.  We set out with an idea of how to make things work, they work, and so we attribute that success to our initial ideas.  But more often than not our success is much more complicated than we know.  It probably has some randomness about it, lots of factors which are completely out of our control, and for all we know our ideas on how to succeed hurt more than they helped.  

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, shows that great success requires great investment from us as well as huge numbers of external circumstances to line up in our favor.  Another good book on this subject is What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  In it he examines how the factors which once contributed to success in the workplace can quickly become a problem. 

Meanwhile, when I fail, I do reflect and examine what has happened.  I look at both my own mistakes and some of the complicated external factors which contributed to my failure.  Initially, this divergence in attitude arises from my desire to credit myself with my successes and blame something else for my failures.  It is comforting to find out that, in most cases, at least part of my failure was out of my control.  I don't really want to learn that about my successes, but it is no less true. By now I should know to try to learn appropriately from both success and failure, but in many instances I don't. 

Some of the biggest learned from failures in my life include running from God out of high-school, burning out in my second year university, trying and failing to make positive changes in Campus Crusade for Christ at anything other than a small group/campus level, and repeatedly failing to break free from my pornography addiction on my own. 

Through running from God I began to appreciate just how much He loves me and desires my best.  Through burning out I realized that not only am I not Jesus, I am not even Asian :) I have limits, and most of the time I break first.  From beating my head against the wall trying to change an organization I began to see how the process of change actually works, which things are important and which aren't, how to unify instead of divide a group, and lots of things not to do.  And from failing to break free from my addiction on my own I came to realize just how much I need help, how weak I am, and how communal human beings are designed to be.  

All of these experiences have left their marks on me, scars that define who I am.  I recently bought Chris Sligh's album "The Anatomy of Broken."  On it he has a song, entitled scars and referring to the Manning quote above, that talks about this (I couldn't find a youtube link for the song.  If you want to hear it, buy it off ITunes or something :)

Cuz light only shines, yeah light only shines
From the places where we’re broken
And that’s where we find, that’s where we find
That grace begins

It’s easy now to let it (them) go
The only thing that’s left to show
That love has healed our broken hearts
Is scars

I wish I was teachable enough for God to just tell me stuff, but until that day comes I will accept the wisdom he passes on through my weakness and the strength I have in God when I fail.  

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-10


Anonymous said...

Why do some people learn from their failures and continue to strive while others quit trying all together????

Andrew said...

I think it's all about attitude. How do you view failure? Do you look at it as a chance to learn and grow, or an ending? Do you run from it ashamed, or do you realize that we all fail and keep moving forward? Do you fear it?

Of course, many of us have ingrained patterns of behavior and attitudes which prevent us from approaching failure in a helpful manner. If that is the case, then we need to change, but such change is difficult and takes times.

Perseverance is oft promoted in the bible for this reason. Because it is the combination of perseverance with trial that produces character.