I worded the title of this blog to capture the attention of people who do believe their mistakes are failures, but in all honesty, I don’t believe mistakes are failures. And I’d like to explain to you my reasoning for that plus in a future blog give you some tips on coping with perceptions of failure. For now I just want to convince you that using the word failure, for any reason, is a mistake.
I think the key to changing ones perception of how to think about failure is to first look at the literal description:
Failure: The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends.
Okay, well I can’t argue with that definition. If you set out to be a multi-millionaire and fall short of that, then by the literal definition, you have failed. But wait, doesn’t that just mean that failure is not achieving a goal? Well, wouldn’t the answer then be to set your expectations lower? By that tactic, you would never fail. If your idea of success is to wake up every morning and be alive, then everyday is a success. It means that success is technically in your control as you define the parameters of that success. It would be nice if it worked like that wouldn’t it? But certainly, lowering our expectations can be difficult when we are so convinced they should be of a certain standard.
When thinking about failure I don’t think human beings are literal about the definition of the word. I actually think failure has an extremely heavy emotional weighting. So like a good scientist I double checked my gut feeling on this by looking up a study of the affective value of certain words. I found that the valence, or ‘mood’ of the word failure trended towards the negative. To put it simply, it just means that we interpret the word ‘failure’ as ‘bad’. As for the arousal value of the word (or way it affects peoples sympathetic nervous system — the system involved with panic and anxiety), it was 2.81 standard deviations across a normal sample mean. For those non-statistic geeks. It just means in a large sample of words, the word ‘failure’ tends to affect us more than the other 99% of words. Amazing, huh?
So while it may be correct to call a mistake a failure, it certainly is not helpful to call a mistake a failure. Why?