CATEGORY: Human Competence | AUTHOR: Amy Hackett-Jones

The role of success and failure in reaching your potential

The most satisfying victory is the one that requires us to go within, dig deeper, and muster all our courage to go further than we’ve ever gone before.

All this without knowing if our effort, preparation and commitment will be enough to secure a spot on the podium. Society doesn’t reward defeat, and there aren’t many failures documented in history books. 

Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times; the light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” While we may all know that story, how many of us hold that perspective on failure and success? 

The pain of shame 

Unlike Edison, most of us continue to avoid the pain of the shame of perceived failure. In fact, we’re so focused on not failing that we don’t even aim for success, settling instead for our all-too-familiar comfort zones. We are not prepared to take the risk of being visibly raw, real and vulnerable in front of others to reap the reward we otherwise dream of.

The pain of shame is what we are most afraid of; to feel that our entire self is powerless, small and exposed to an audience (real or imagined) that exists purely to confirm that we are indeed worthless. We feel shame in the pit of our stomachs, especially when there is no safe haven from the judgement of others.

Bukayo Saka, England footballer, whose penalty-kick lost us the crowning glory of the Euro 2020 championship, faced unwieldy criticism, racism, judgement, and shaming in the aftermath. Together with manager Gareth Southgate, who lived through a similar experience in his career, Bukayo stood tall, spoke out and called for change. Neither of them failed. They lived through the experience, lead the nation to higher standards, and provided exemplary insights for reflection for those willing to see and apply them to themselves.

The perception of failure 

In our success-driven society, not only is failure not an option, it’s still deemed to be an outright deficiency, says Kathryn Shulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.”

There isn’t an Olympic athlete who hasn’t failed a thousand times before they can claim their place on the podium. 

Simone Biles, the multi-medal winning Olympic gymnast, has come to realise and showcase to the world that she isn’t just a robotic gymnast who can pump out golds at the flick of her iconic moves; but that she is, in fact, human and vulnerable to the intense scrutiny and pressures to perform at the highest level. In fact, the courage it took her to pull back from the glory and the thirst for yet more gold medals was herculean. 

Still, she chose to listen to and honour the voice deep within and do what she knew was right at that moment, despite everything she had to lose. It caused a flurry of criticism and shaming from punters across the globe. However, what she gained was her sanity and a state of inner peace that enabled her to carry on. The leadership she demonstrated commanded even greater respect. It paved the way for more enlightened conversations that encourage us all to get to know ourselves better, listen to the wild whisper deep within if we dare, learn the lessons, go with our convictions, and ensure we enjoy the ride.

What if…

If that’s the case, perhaps our perception of and our response to failure need a complete overhaul.

What if…

Failure is life’s greatest teacher? Another opportunity to listen to our internal guidance system?

What if…

We called it something else altogether? Stepping stones to our potential?

What if…

Our effort is made up of hundreds of micro-steps along the way? Suddenly the impossible becomes possible, and our potential becomes palpable. 

What if… 

Our job is to show up asking questions of ourselves? Not about how we’ve failed, but about how every step along our journey is there for a reason. It is there so that we learn and grow at every juncture.

What if…

Choice gives us power? If we choose not to react to shame but to honour it and to respond to it as a mentor guiding us, what else might be possible?

What if…

Reframing fear encouraged us to be more curious? Could it enable us to take a step back, get some guidance and some perspective, reflect and respond to the situations that we face from a place of alignment and integrity, with a heart at peace, rather than reacting out of fear as we repeatedly have?

Peace, power and purpose

Their embrace of failure as a necessary step to unprecedented success is rooted in the mindset of daredevils, pioneers, inventors, explorers and heroes. They had a dream, hired a mentor, committed every day to reaching the vision they set their hearts and minds to, embracing each step. And so can we.

Once we’ve reframed fear and left shame in our wake, there is space for us to operate inside our strength zone. Here we create space for freedom, possibility, joy, curiosity, creativity, and so much more. Here we can work with inner peace, personal power and an inspired purpose to reach our potential. 


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