Do We Need Failure?

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April 2012

The first reaction of most people to this question would probably be something along the lines of, "No, but we're stuck with it!"

But have you ever really considered 'failure' and what it actually is? If not, read on for a whole new way of seeing it.

  • Say the word, ‘FAILURE’ to yourself and notice what springs to your awareness.
  • Do you get memories of certain efforts which you consider resulted in failure? 
  • Do your own failures come to mind or those of others?
  • Do these thoughts trigger any particular emotion and, if so, where in your body do you feel it?

The very word, ‘failure’, has a negative ring to it. I doubt there are many people for whom it means something to be celebrated.

But what if we had no word in our language that represented ‘failure’? If we failed at anything we would have to say instead that we ‘didn’t succeed’. Now, I don’t know about you, but for me to say that I didn’t succeed at something is nowhere near as condemning as to say I ‘failed’.

school sports daySchool Sports Day

If I say I didn’t succeed at something it often implies that I didn’t manage it on that occasion but may well do so next time. 

We often say we didn’t do something. Sometimes we didn’t do it because we didn’t want to. The word, ‘didn’t’, simply means ‘not doing’. It doesn’t necessarily imply any degree of failure or wrongdoing. In general it leaves room for positive movement, for hope...

‘Failure’ does none of these. To say you’ve failed is to be doomed.

But we are considering our use of a word, just a word. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is very interested in the power of words and the effects they have that often go way beyond the  circumstances in which they’re used.  When we use words to label events and feelings our brains link the two.  Afterwards the brain only has to encounter the word for it to instantly conjure up the feelings as well.

Try this:

Read the following words aloud, pausing between each one to notice what comes to mind.








On their own the above are just sounds (when we speak them) or shapes on the paper (when we read them). But in the course of everyday life our brains have learnt to link them with certain experiences. Therefore, although possibly everyone reading this would more or less agree as to which objects these words refer, they would not necessarily all get the same feelings or memories as a result of seeing or speaking these words.

For example, one person may cringe as the thought of ‘ice cream’ sets their sensitive teeth on edge. Another may find their mouth watering at the prospect of eating some. A third person may blush at the memory of something embarrassing that once happened to them involving ice cream.

Therefore, it’s not the word itself that has these associations but rather your past experiences that are associated with it.

 But... what if those words didn’t exist in our language?  If there were no word for ‘ice cream’ so that whenever we wanted to mention it we had to say something like, “that cold stuff that melts quickly and tastes nice”.  Somehow it doesn’t evoke quite as rapid or strong a response as the simple words, ‘ice cream’. 

What if there were no word for ‘snake’? I don’t like them and my toes curl up at the mention of the word. On the other hand, if I read, "those long creatures that slide along the ground” it takes a while for me to realise what it’s talking about and the reaction is less intense as a result.

So, where am I going with all this? 

One aspect of being ‘in the moment’ is to experience what is, as it is in the here and now. When we use words and the memories and feelings we have come to associate with them, we experience whatever it is as if through a filter of our past experience of it, rather than as it actually is in the here and now. This is relevant especially where we have negative associations of any kind because we allow ourselves to be dragged by our brains into fear or distaste, or embarrassment for no reason that actually exists in this moment here and now.

What did the image of the sports day bring to your mind? Did it evoke memories of your own sports days?

It's obvious in the picture that some of these boys are certainly not going to win, but they are having a good time messing about. More importantly most of them only set out to just do the best they could and have a good time. The wheelbarrow race that they're doing is not an event with high athletic status. 

But even if it were, why do we need to focus on the possibility of failure rather than on just doing the best we can at that time under those circumstances? 

Sunrise behind tree silhouette

Focusing on doing rather than the outcome will improve performance at any level. Stressing about the possibility of failing will have a negative effect.

 So, what about that word, ‘failure’?  Do we actually need it at all? Does it contribute anything meaningful or useful to our everyday lives? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

If you decide, like me, that it serves very little helpful purpose, see if you can remove it from everyday use.  Replace it instead with acceptance. After all, even when we fail, we didn’t intend to, we probably did the best of which we were capable on that occasion under those circumstances. So if we must say anything, say simply, “we didn’t succeed... this time...”