Experiments vs Failures

When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You haven’t.

-Thomas Edison


Over and over I hear about the problems people have with failure. It seems we are risk-averse and do not want to fail.

I often talk to teens about this issue. Some of our highest flying teens seem particularly risk averse. This is often something blamed on their generation, but I am not sure this is a generational thing. If anything, I think their parents’ generation (my generation, Gen X) is the one who has pointed out how terrible it is for them to fail. But nonetheless, here is what we talk about.

I point out that the best and brightest in any field tend to take on the toughest problems. These are either new problems that nobody has solved yet or age old problems that resist obvious (and not so obvious) solutions. There is great unknown inherent in these issues, and attempts to solve them are frequently met with what can be viewed as failure.

However, the best and brightest do not necessarily see attempts to solve these problems as failures. They see it as experimenting. In order to solve problems, we may need to systematically form opinions and test them. At the beginning, many options appear to be equally good, so choosing one and trying it is a good place to start. If that one attempt out of many good looking options works, you were fortunate. Otherwise, the experiment will not get the results you hoped for, and could be considered a failure.

Here is the thing to remember. An experiment is never a failure (although some are conducted poorly). Results are always a perfect reflection of how the experiment was conducted, and all results have the potential to be informative. When tempted to use the word failure, 99 times out of 100 there is a better term.

Most times, when someone looks like a huge success to us, we simply have not been privy to all the experimenting they’ve performed in the dark before bringing their triumph to the light of eyes. If something is important to you, exhaust your possibilities, and when you believe you have met failure, remember this: You haven’t.

Going to Failure

I am fortunate to have some great bosses, and one of them is Steve Hawley, Principal at Lake Orion High School. Steve and I usually have a few short conversations each day, and in addition to education, some of the most frequently touched upon topics are sports and fitness. In particular, we often turn to a topic near and dear to each of us: Middle-aged men’s fitness (insert canned laughter).

The other day, Steve mentioned that he recently read an article on the importance of going to failure (doing repetitions until you cannot do anymore) during resistance training. Naturally, I decided to incorporate failure into my next workout. I started with pushups (because it is a relatively safe way to get to failure), and here is what I noticed:

It wasn’t as easy to get to failure as I imagined (even not being in great shape). It took a great effort, yet as soon as I reached failure and stopped, I realized I had more to give. In other words, rather than reaching my true failure point, I simply gave up. It wasn’t that I could not do any more pushups. I simply would not do any more.

Two days later I gave it another shot. This time, I realized I had more to give, and I gave it. Yet something tells me that even though I thought I got to failure, I still probably had more to give.

Now, from the outside, it appears as if I am training mental toughness, but I doubt this is what is happening. What I am really doing is realizing mental toughness. I’m not training mental toughness as much as I realizing it through the medium of pushups. Experience provides the opportunity to realize what I have inside, but it is an illusion that the experience is the actual trainer.

Because we can’t separate ourselves from time and experience, mental toughness appears to be built, but in reality it is actualized or realized more than it is built. I happen to believe that if we are being honest, this is the only explanation that makes sense. Not only does my understanding of my experience with the pushups help illustrate this for me, daily life is filled with countless examples of mental toughness that is actualized without prior training.

Think about parenting or persevering after the unexpected death of a loved one. I think we can all agree that within an individual these require new levels or dimensions of mental toughness. People persevere through these situations anew every day, and where is the training for them? It doesn’t exist, and yet on a daily basis people display incredible untrained toughness and persevere.

It’s my hope that you realize that you do not need to build mental toughness before you actualize it or realize it in your life. It is available to you right now, and that is an incredibly valuable insight that requires no training or skill.