Your Relationship with Failure

Here are some quotes from J.K. Rowling about the fear of failure:

Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

The notion that you might fail can really slow you down. But it’s not the failure itself that’s the problem. The problem is your relationship with failure.

Consider the grand opening of Disneyland, which happened about 65 years ago on July 17, 1955. It was supposed to be a press preview day with limited attendance, and it was a spectacular failure.

Here are some things that happened that day:

  • Disney was expecting 11,000 guests because they sent out a limited number of invitations, but 28,000 people showed up. Someone sold thousands of counterfeit tickets. Another guy set up a ladder in the back of the park and charged people $5 to sneak in that way – and many did.
  • The crowds trying to reach Disneyland caused a 7-mile backup on the Santa Ana Freeway. People were stuck in their cars for so long that they had to relieve themselves on the side of the freeway – not sexually, you slut! It was too hot that day.
  • The temperature topped 100 degrees (38 C), hot enough to melt the fresh asphalt on Main Street into a sticky tar that ensnared women’s high-heeled shoes.
  • Some paint in the park wasn’t quite dry, and some people were getting paint on their clothes.
  • Due to the huge crowds, the park’s snack stands and restaurants ran out of food at lunchtime.
  • Due to a plumbers’ strike, the park wasn’t able to install enough drinking fountains before opening, so people weren’t finding enough access to water. Many accused Disney of doing this deliberately to gouge them for the expense of sodas.
  • Due to the heat and the crowds, most of the rides broke down at least once, causing more frustrations.
  • The Mark Twain riverboat was so overloaded with guests that it ran low in the water, and water from the river was sloshing up onto the deck.
  • The park was full of press, who canned the experience, which was referred to as Black Sunday. Some press predicted the park wouldn’t survive.

Things didn’t immediately improve. Disneyland had more problems in the weeks after the opening, including people smashing up most of the cars on the Autopia ride by driving them too aggressively.

But these many failures didn’t matter that much. Disneyland still did a lot of things right. They eventually fixed the problems, which was like a game of Whack-a-Mole since new problems kept arising. Disneyland was always going to be a work in progress.

Our lives are like this too. Just because you have a spectacular failure doesn’t mean the game is over. You take your licks and get right back to working on your goals. Acknowledge and fix problems one by one. Keep learning and adapting.

Imagine being Walt Disney on Disneyland’s grand opening day. Tons of press are there. The park bears your name. It’s been a 20-year journey to evolve your vision for a theme park into a reality. You’ve struggled endlessly just to get the financing in place, and then there were even more struggles to get the place designed and built. So many people have doubted you, including your brother and business partner Roy. You’ve been preparing for and anticipating this glorious day for a long time. And then some asshole screws up your plans by making thousands of counterfeit tickets, and your people can’t tell the real tickets from the fake ones. Your plans for a wonderful opening start falling apart right before your eyes, and all the attention and the cameras are on you – not to mention all the investors who want to know whether investing in your vision was a good idea.

And what do you do? You shrug it off and get right back to work the next day.

Failures happen. This is part of life. While other people may make a huge deal out of it, is it really that big of a deal? So what if you have a spectacularly bad failure! That isn’t the end. It’s just a learning experience, so learn from it. Life continues the next day.

People may criticize you. You may be embarrassed. Accept the consequences, and then get right back to it and re-engage.

You needn’t retreat and slink away in shame. Be proud that you failed. So many people are too cowardly to even try working on something meaningful. They talk themselves out of pursuing bold ideas before they begin. They treat the prospect of failure as a reason to quit before they start.

Many of Disney’s ideas, including some rides they tried, had to be scrapped and replaced. Each ride was a big project unto itself, so some of those failures ended in the death of a project. But the death of a project doesn’t have to kill the big picture vision.

Take this idea to heart. You can fail a lot with your projects, but your big picture goal can remain intact and achievable. Some ideas and projects along the way will be dead ends, and you’ll have to let them go. So you’ll need different projects and ideas to help you reach your goal. Don’t equate the failure of your projects with the death of your long-term goal.

Don’t pursue your goals as if you know you can’t fail. Of course you can fail! But don’t make such a big deal out of failure. It will happen. You’ll rack up plenty of failures if you do anything interesting in life. Let each failure be a badge of honor. It means you’re making a good effort. A good failure is a powerful learning experience.

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