What we learn from failure

By Scott Westerman
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“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” ~Theodore Roosevelt

After losing to Michigan State in the 1988 Rose Bowl game, USC head coach, Larry Smith, came into the Spartans’ locker room to congratulate the team on their victory. As we were preparing for this year’s trip to Pasadena, I watched the video that our Dave Brown shot of that moment. Coach Smith was magnanimous, classy and genuine in his praise. Everyone in that room realized they were talking with a winner.

After their loss in the 2014 Orange Bowl, someone on the Ohio State football team destroyed the whiteboard in the team’s locker room.

My good friend Bruce Sokolove sent me a piece from the New York Times entitled, “In Praise of Failure“. In it, Texas Tech’s Costica Bradatan posits that, “Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.” It lays bare our current state, with all it’s imperfections and opportunities, stripping away false facades and the egos that are attached to them. It’s the ultimate metric of where we are right now.

And how we learn from it and react to it will determine our future. Abraham Lincoln’s greatest concern was, “not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

Resistance is everywhere. And it’s not a bad thing.

Resistance training in the gym is based on the principle that all muscle must breakdown so it can regenerate into something stronger. And so it is in every other area of human endeavor. Napoleon Hill puts it this way, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed on an equal or greater benefit.”

Failure can be the boulder that squashes our dreams or a regenerator; the launching pad to rocket us in their direction. “If you learn from defeat,” sales guru Zig Ziglar says, “you haven’t really lost.”

It’s a fact of life that you can’t succeed without failing first. Tony Robbins, looking back on an extraordinary career of achievement, says, “I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.”

And here’s a secret: That interval that separates failure from success; the space between what we are right now and what we can become is where all adventure takes place. This is what athletes call “the Zone”. The most elite move from failure to failure, honing their skills along the way until the right behaviors become reflexive and the unproductive behaviors that generated past failures recede into the rear view mirror. Great athletes still screw up. But they see failures as sharp memories that can urge us forward, instead of holding us back.

Failures are relative. It’s all in how we look at them.

Bradatan’s last point in his New York Times essay tells us that as human beings, we are designed to fail. All coaches eventually get fired. The mighty often fall. And in the end, even our bodies fail us. “The more essential question,” Bradatan writes, “is rather how to approach the grand failure, how to face it and embrace it and own it .”

Dr. Viktor Frankl describes two kinds of people he met while in the concentration camps: those who gave up easily and died quickly, and those who were seemingly transformed into saints. These amazing human beings endured horrific punishment, faced certain death, and in the process inspired and transformed everyone they met; even their captors.

This is the choice each of us face every day. We will fail. We will be hurt. Bad things will happen. It is how we embrace, react to and learn from these things that will be your personal legacy.

One of the most revealing things Head Coach, Mark Dantonio said about the secret of MSU’s rise to national Football prominence is this: “We learned from our mistakes.”

Our world isn’t a sitcom with a happy ending every 28 minutes. It’s mine field filled with obstacles, resistance and opposition. The grand irony is that how we navigate that mine field will determine the extent of the exhilaration, achievement and happiness we will enjoy.

Courage lives
In the eye of the storm.
Strength can be found when
Carrying the heaviest loads.
And true character is revealed
On the coldest days
And during the darkest nights.
So seek not the easy road.
Seek instead the greatest challenge.
For that is where you will find
The true meaning of life.