Failing Forward

This past week I had a rare morning not consisting of dropping the boys at school or running off to work first thing. So, I took the time to sit at Starbucks and reflect. The fourth thing I spent time reflecting on, after birthdays, the people who walk into Starbucks and researching a little on A Tale of Two Cities via the French Revolution, was failure.

No one likes failure. No one wants to be called or be seen as a failure. This is true for any area of life. I can still remember the nausea I felt every time I received an “F” on a test or assignment in school. I am not sure what the other letter grades stand for, but I am sure an F stands for “FAILURE!

That morning at Starbucks I started with a question:

Q: “What does failure look like?”

I come up with the following answers:

A: Not meeting a self imposed goal or objective.
A: Not meeting other’s goals to 
A: Not achieving a desired out come.

Basically, these answers correspond to known and accepted definitions of the word. Although, definition #1 at only defines failure by its opposite, definition #2 is more helpful:

fail·ure [feyl-yer] noun
1. an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success
2. nonperformance of something due, required, or expected

Over at, they list three types of failure:

  1. Failure to anticipate
    One’s lack of preparation or to be ready for what comes next.
  2. Failure to perceive
    One’s inability to see farther than the immediate or being short/near sighted.
  3. Failure to carry out a task.
    One’s absence of competency or capacity to fulfill a responsibility. 


  • A car accident is a driving fail.
  • Being fired is a employment fail.
  • A bounced check, missed payment or bankruptcy is a financial management fail.
  • A break up or divorce is a relational fail.
  • Arriving late or missing an appointment is a time management fail.
  • Unmet expectations or hurt feelings are communication fails.

Culture makes it hard to embrace failure. To learn from it. Or to experience its worth. The reality is failure is nothing but a bitter pill to swollow. Oh, culture gives a nod to the power and advantages of failure in memes, motivational poster and quotes, but the truth is failures don’t get to lead Fortune 500 companies, have 6 or 7 digit salaries and are not trusted with the weighty responsiblities. Culture rewards the success stories (those who make much out of little, those who overcame, those who have risen to the top) and mocks the failures (those who don’t measure up, those who succumbed and those who stumble on their path). Failure is avoided and uncomfortable because it reveals our weaknesses and destroys the myths that we have it together or we know what we are doing. And this is not a side of ourselves we wish to show the world. No one sets out to fail, like they do to succeed, because failure is a less than desirable option.

But what would it look like if failure was not desired, but accepted and appreciated for what it can teach and how it can informed? Thomas J. Watson, the founder and chairmen of Integrated Business Machines (a.k.a IBM) one said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”  Someone once put limits on failure when they quipped, “The only true failure, is one that is repeated.”

So, how do we fail forward and not backward? Or in Richard Rohr’s language (see post: You’ll Need This Later), fall upward and not downward (by inference)?

I think we have to start by letting go of categories such as “success” and “failure.” However, we are not going to be able to do this until we stop comparing ourselves with other people. We have to transcend those cultural practices that falsely inform us of who we are supposed to be (age, weight, status, style, education, etc.). Failing forward has to do with letting go of our ego and the self we have constructed to show the world. This has to do with projecting ourselves as capable, confident and competent.  It is great to be capable, confident and competent if you are. If you are not, thats ok too. The failure is staying that way.

My intellectual, though not my practical, measure of myself is not who others think I should be, not even who I think I should be, but who God expects me to be because of his love and gifting coupled with my wiring and context. That is my measure. I am not even sure I should strive to be like Jesus. For one thing, this is not possible and maybe not even desirable because I will always fall short constantly inject frustration into my faith and life.  Jesus, in a Luke 12:42-48 parable, commends the servant who does the masters will (vs. 42). I love how the NASB tralstion put it:

And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible (wise)
steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants,
to give them
their rations at the proper time? Luke 12:42

The parable addresses the question of who is “faithful” and “sensible”. I think it is both faithful and sensible to ask, “Who has God made me to be (in relationship to no one else.)?”

I hate to sound like Yoda, but I think we need two new categories other than success and failure. Ones like “doing and “not doing.” Or maybe even “effective” and “ineffective.”  If we are not doing the master’s will, than we should start. If we are not effective in our doing, than we need to switch our tactics, approach or role. In Bill Hybel’s language we should Train, Transfer or Terminate. The point is there is always an option to move onward in life and with life. Forward, that is the direction every day takes us. We can go with it or fight against it.


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