What To Do About Failure?

Failure is a loaded topic. /my understatement of this year/ But I’m not scared of loaded topics (are you scared of loaded topics?), so let’s tackle it!

I see two common discussion points on failure: shame and reclaiming.


Failure often causes shame and discouragement in people. That’s not a throwaway idea. Shame is a controlling force behind many, many actions. It’s a subtly powerful emotional and biological element that many of us are inexperienced at recognizing and managing.

From some experts on shame:

Shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can do and be better. –Brené Brown

Experiences of shame….lead to disintegrated states of mind that end in disintegrated communities with little creative capacity for goodness and beauty.

Shame’s power lies not so much in facts that we can clarify but rather in its emotional state, which is so much harder to shake.

Shame is certainly formed in the world of emotion, but it eventually recruits and involves our thinking, imaging, and behaving as well.

–Curt Thompson

So shame can be a major problem with talking about failure. Shame makes us do seemingly crazy things. It makes us numb and hopeless. It can make us lash out, sometimes inexplicably. In general, it can make us feel and act in ways that we find impossible to explain.


Instead of feeling hopeless about our failures, the gurus tell us now, we should see them as necessary. Character-building. A step on the path to success.

This is not a terrible take. It is true that failure is part of the process. Thomas Edison, lightbulbs, blahblahblah.

Look, I take issue with the productivity and success and lifestyle gurus for a lot of things. But I sort of like this take on failure. I just think it’s missing some pieces. For example, remember that part in the quote above about how shame is an emotional state that’s hard to shake? Y’know, that quote from a neuroscientist? That’s part of why I don’t love this popular idea of reclaiming failure. Just telling yourself that it’s a necessary step on the path to success is likely not enough to rewire the shame working deeply on your body.

Another thing this take misses: society. Shame happens because of other people. It’s our response to feeling inadequate or not good enough, and it almost always stems from someone else’s expectations. So unless you can rewire all of society to say that failures are a good thing because they’re stepping stones to success, you still have the shame problem surrounding failure.

What’s the third option?

Some of my dear friends introduced me to the idea of the third option: when you’re feeling trapped, when you’re pulled between two things–identities, positions, choices–there is always a third option. Look for it.

So right now, my only understanding of failure–and most of what I see in society–is steeped in shame. It’s a bad thing to be reclaimed and reprogrammed.

But there’s a third option.

What if we could do away with the concept of failure entirely? 

Failure is a value judgment. It sees an action, an endeavor, a life as passing or not. (Do you hear the echoes of shame’s “not good enough” in that “not?” I do.) We often use that attitude to judge who is deserving, another idea that is increasingly disturbing to me. And failure, due to its inducing of shame, a paralyzing, destructive force, isn’t really a positive thing in the world.

So what if we just threw out the concept of failure entirely?

In theory, we are all failing at innumerable things all the time. I’m failing to speak French, failing to be a chef, failing to have children, failing to live in Uzbekistan, failing to sky-dive, failing to travel to the moon.

We are all failing at everything we’re not doing.

Am I stretching a bit too far with that? “Lyse,” you might say, “you can only fail at something you are trying to do or be.” And sure, maybe the dictionary mostly agrees with you, but I think this goes deeper than a dictionary definition.

I think that if we’re going to all the trouble of reclaiming failure, we should just abolish it. Writing 15k words during NaNoWriMo isn’t failing, it’s writing 15k words more than you would have otherwise. Closing a small business isn’t failing at business, it’s moving on to the next thing.

And here is the really, really important thing: abolishing failure cannot just be semantic. If everyone still looks at each other and thinks, “Oh, they’re a failure,” it’s not actually gone.

We would have to learn to embrace the “failures” of others. You wrote 15k words? Great! That’s amazing! It’s so neat that you tried something new and participated in a community event. What did you enjoy about it? What did you learn?

Can we learn to do that? Can we just, please, throw out the idea of failure entirely?

“But Lyse,” you say, “what about when people really do fail? What then?”

Sure, that will happen. But can’t we, as interconnected humanity, come up with more powerful and imaginative ways to realize “failures?” So you got a low grade on a test. That’s feedback. It tells you and your teacher that you don’t understand the material (or you’re struggling with test-taking, or you didn’t prepare, or you had a bad night’s sleep, or). It’s data, not a moral judgment on you. Your job is to decide what you want to do with that data. Our job (those around you) is to support you and see if we can help you in the next steps you take with this data.

Sometimes there will be consequences of your actions and sometimes those consequences will be negative, but that doesn’t make you a failure either. That’s just how the world works.

That’s a lot to process, right? Take a moment or a week or a year. Failure and shame are pretty embedded, so this idea might make you angry. You might think I’m idealistic. Maybe you think I’m a failure who’s just trying to make herself feel better.

That’s okay. Take your time. Loosening the web of shame for one person loosens it for all of us. Shaming each other less–starting with the idea of failure–can only make life better for you.

I’m not any kind of expert, just a human who reads, thinks about emotions, and sees how much shame destroys people. I’m not optimistic enough to think that my thoughts here will change the world. But maybe they will change you. Maybe you will change another. Maybe some of us will loosen the web of shame, dispel the specter of failure a little. And that is good.


This idea is the result of research, work, and thought-provoking conversations from people I respect a lot. 

h/t to John and Hank Green for raising the question of “What counts as failure?” in Episode 161 of Dear Hank and John

Incredible thanks to both Brené Brown and Curt Thompson for their work on shame, which has literally changed my life. If you’re interested in more, try Brené‘s TED Talk or Curt’s book, The Soul of Shame

All the love and thanks to my friends who are willing to have the hard conversations, to indulge my exploration, and who are quick to remind me of the third option when I’m feeling hopeless. They know who they are. 


1 thought on “What To Do About Failure?

  1. Pingback: Lyse Links: Misfits, marriage, and meritocracy | Lyse of Llyr

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