The Importance of Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about bones lately. I’ve been thinking about what happens when you break one. A friend is a power lifter; he literally wrestled a bear once (for charity. Both he and the bear were fine). But he fell while trying to fix a toilet and broke his elbow and now has a very impressive-looking brace on it.

I was thinking about how, when a bone breaks, it hurts a great deal, and even after it sets it can throb and be sore for weeks. (I’m taking this on faith; I’ve never actually broken one and was unwilling to do it for science’s sake).

But then it begins to heal, and while it heals, a mass of bone surrounds the broken area. As a result, the place where a bone broke is temporarily stronger than it was before it was ever broken.

The effect isn’t permanent, or I imagine every athlete and soldier in the world would be throwing themselves down stairs to try to break-and-heal more, but it’s got me thinking about failure in general.

I was reading one of those stupid lists of “things everyone should do before ____,” and failure showed up there, too. Most of the list amounted to that: fail, and fail again, and learn from failures while you can. It also quotes J.K. Rowling, who famously was on welfare and at rock-bottom before she sold Harry Potter and became a hero to authors and readers everywhere. She told Oprah:

“I’ve often met people who are terrified—you know, in a straitjacket of their own making—because they’d rather do anything than fail. They don’t want to try for fear of failing,” she says. “[Hitting] rock bottom wasn’t fun at all—I’m not romanticizing rock bottom—but it was liberating. What did I have to lose?”

I wonder if perhaps it was her failure that allowed Rowling to succeed?

Resilience is one of the most amazing characteristics of humanity. Did you know that, psychologically speaking, there is a large segment of cancer survivors who say they are grateful for the cancer, as terrible as the experience was? That is failure of the body. There are many kinds of failure, some for which we contributed and some that happen for no reason at all. They all hurt wickedly, and are sore for a good long time after the event. But what if, like with a broken bone, we are stronger after we have healed from a failure? What can we do with the lessons we’ve learned from our failures, and what will we go on to achieve?

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