by Marsha Rakestraw
I love reading stories about solutionaries and changemakers. They are always inspiring and teach me so much about being a better person and a better activist.
Awhile ago I read the memoir of Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner, member of Kenyan parliament, Green Belt Movement founder. She was an amazing trailblazer. I enjoyed reading about her life and accomplishments, but what was most useful to me was reading about her failures.
She failed. A lot.
She met countless obstacles along her path, but she didn’t let them deter her. She kept trying. She failed some more. And then sometimes she didn’t. And many of those times of success were built upon the foundation of those failures.
Reading about the failures of extraordinary people is not only a reminder that those we often put on pedestals didn’t get there magically. That they’re ordinary people who struggle, just like us. Reading about failures is also a great reminder about the benefit of failure in our lives.
And a recent study shows that young people do better in science when they know that scientists like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie struggled.
Here are just four reasons for us to embrace failure.
1. We learn from failure. Every time we fail, we learn something from it. We learn what didn’t work, and it helps us hone in on what will work. Failure helps us solve pieces of the bigger picture puzzle. And some studies show that failure can be a better teacher than success.
As life coach Nicole Bernardo says, “Failing again and again helps you chip away at the stuff that isn’t serving you anymore and guides you to see a different path or idea that you hadn’t noticed before. It helps you become the best version of yourself.“
2. Failure means we’ve taken action. Every one of us has had at least one brilliant idea; but how many of us have acted on it? How many of us have pursued that new hobby or habit or friendship or changemaking project? Failure is a reminder that we tried something. We’ve taken action. We may not have succeeded, but we’ve taken those first steps. And that gives us something to build on.
3. Failure helps teach us persistence. When Wangari Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement, it started as a tiny project. As it grew, she encountered failure after failure, including major problems with corruption and logistics and politics and cultural challenges. Each time she reflected on what had worked and what hadn’t; she set her next steps and new strategies and kept going. She persisted.
4. Failure can help us define our path. Sometimes our efforts fail for a reason. If we have embraced a project or goal that is not actually good for us, our failure can be a way of steering us in a better direction. Knowing when to cut our losses and change course is a difficult skill to acquire, but it will ultimately help us achieve greater good.
We’re taught that failure is something to avoid and reject. Something to be ashamed of.
But failure is an inevitable and important tool in helping us better our lives and create a better world for others.