How to fail forward

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learning to surf means you’ll have to embrace falling as part of the process.

Here’s to being vulnerable: for most of my life I’ve struggled with perfectionism. I’ve felt I had to make the right choice in every single situation, however seemingly inconsequential. Did I study the right subject in school? Did I say the right thing in that conversation? Am I wearing the right outfit? Did I eat the right thing for lunch? I used to obsess over decision I had made, agonizing over whether I had made the “wrong” one and whether that would taint a (ridiculous) aspiration to live perfectly.

As a 28 year-old woman living in a fairly expansive world with a lot of options, my decisions now seem a bit more consequential and more overwhelming than those I made as a younger adult. The big questions used to be: where should I go to college? What should I major in? Should I join the dance team? Who should I room with? Now the decisions look like: where should I live? What career path should I choose? Who should I marry?

For most of human history- and even now in most of the world- people did not have the option to “choose” what kind of life they would live. They worked their family’s trade; they married who their parents chose for them; they lived where they were born. But in 2017, if you’re living in a certain place at a certain socio-economic level, it seems that you have an endless array of options as answers to any one of these questions. This freedom to choose is both wonderful and terrifying, and can leave us with an overwhelming sense of fear that we will choose the wrong path, resulting in the worst possible outcome: failure.

So, here’s the thing: failure- even on a large scale- is inevitable. It’s part of being a human being with infinite capabilities of screwing up. The more important question to ask after you’ve gone through a tough situation that may have been the result of your own doing is not, “Where did I fail?” It’s “What am I going to do with that failure?”

In other words, “How do I fail forward?”

Failing forward is living in such a way that empowers you to perceive “fails” not as a measure of your personal success but as an inevitable part of the process of life. We never really “arrive”, do we? When we see ways that we’ve failed- in school, our personal lives, finances, career decisions- as opportunities to grow and learn, that’s failing forward.

Failing forward requires you to be honest with yourself, to be honest about the experience, and to ask, what can I do differently in the future? Failing forward doesn’t involve shame, and it doesn’t involve condemnation. Failing forward requires grit.

In the Bible, we see people fail over and over and over (check out the Old Testament if you don’t believe me). And God still uses them. And He still loves them. God doesn’t want us to fail, but He knows that we will and He works in our lives anyway. A verse in the book of Romans comes to mind:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.*

Considering I’ve blogged about this verse before, seems I’m a little hung up on it. But the truth is, I could spend a lifetime mulling over this powerful truth: problems, trials, and failure ultimately can do us good, if we have the right attitude and the right perspective to glean from them, to develop character, and to grow in hope.

As I look back on the past couple years and consider where I may have made the wrong choices, and as I face a future filled with more decisions, I can be certain of one thing: I failed, and I will fail. But God will use anything and everything to teach me how to move forward, become better and more fearless, and trust not in my ability to be “perfect”, but in His ability to make my life into something great.


*Romans 5:3-5

** For some awesome reading on this concept and idea, read Designing Your Life, by Stanford design educators Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.

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