The Power of Failure

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative by David18 Comments

I wrote this just before what I’ve come to call “The Italian Incident” 5 years ago, just after writing a different article, Choose Your Risk, which you can read here. It remains true, if not truer now than ever to me.

After beginning the discussion on risk, my brain started churning through some of the responses and push-back left in the comments and I think the discussion isn’t even close to over just yet.

The first thing that needs qualification is that my point is not that we ought to engage in risk for the sake of risk. My point is that we’ve one short life and while we’ll all look differently at what it means to fully live that life with no regrets, it is often the fear of risk that stands in the way. Overcoming that fear gets us to a place where we can more intentionally engage life, become the people we long to be. Just getting over fear for the sake of risking without examining the results of those risks is, to my mind, pointless.

The second thing I think that needs to be picked apart is the “what about my stupid job?” mentality, which I think has been so beat into us we can no longer see it for what it is. We’ve been conditioned (in a non-paranoid, no-conspiracy-theory kind of way) into leaving school, getting a job, working until retirement, and being a productive bee in the hive. it doesn’t have to be this way. People make a living in thousands of unlikely ways and it’s truly unlikely for most of us that we’ll end up dead on the side of the road while people pass by, shake their heads, and mumble, sotto voce, “see, he shouldn’t have quit his job.” Once above the survival line – and I’d argue we need much, much, less to be happy than we think – it’s important to remember that we work to live, we do not live to work. When work gets in the way of you living your life – then that work no longer serves you and it’s time to change.

Clear your debt as fast as you can. Live on less. Pull your kids from one of their over-priced after-school activities and let them read a library book. Give the car back to the dealer and get one you can actually afford. Save some money. And don’t, whatever you do, wait until “the time is right” before you make the changes your soul is hard longing for. I know, it’s not practical. Practical is safe. Practical is boring. Practical isn’t working for you now, not if all this talk of living life to the fullest resonates with you,  and it isn’t going to work for you in the future.  I don’t know that Gandhi, Moses, Jesus, Einstein, Ben Franklin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Schweitzer, or any of the thousands of unknown adventurers, inventors, poets, or general misfits, ever saw much use for practicalities. They lived with the same realities we do. It is they about whom we tell stories.

So all this was floating in my mind and I began to think about possible first-steps for the fearful ones that long for something more. I think that first step might be failure; the very thing we seem to fear. In the years leading up to my bankruptcy I was terrified; i’d seen the writing on the wall and it was truly frightening. I thought I’d lose it all. I thought I’d never recover. I had fear after fear. And then I walked into my trustee’s office, signed away my debt under a heaviness of shame and guilt – and failure. And to my shock I survived. Not only did I survive, I thrived. I learned lessons I’d never have learned. And I learned that falling down hurt less than I expected. It hurt, of course it did, but not even remotely did the brief hurt outweigh the good that came of the risk.

There’s deep strength in failure. It’s a gift to fall down and get up. Coddle a child and don’t let him eat a little dirt or lick the occasional frog and that child never develops the kind of immune system that keeps him strong. It’s the same with our character. Failure builds immunity, gives us strength, makes us familiar with the actual possibilities that come from risk and robs our fears of the power that comes from the unknown. The more you fail, and learn from those lessons, the less frightening future failures appear.

As with risk, failure for failure’s sake isn’t the point. It’s a waypoint, a portal through which we pass. To return to the idea of living a good story, think back to your favorite stories: the good ones require the protagonist to risk. The epic ones, the ones that really move us, require the protagonist to risk it all. They don’t do so for the sake of the risk itself: they do so because the price of not doing so is too high. Without risking it the village will certainly be destroyed, or the love of their life will certainly be lost. Risk is not the point. Nor is failure.

The stakes are so high. We won’t get to the end and get a do-over. This is not a trial run. What we do here matters. Being fully ourselves, fully alive, and fully engaged with the world around us requires we wake up and shake the sleep from our eyes. I sat with a cancer survivor recently, someone who’d fought for her life to overcome odds and now lives cancer-free but in a job that by her own admission is killing her soul. it was a thrill to see the light come on in her eyes as she realized it didn’t have to be this way. My God, if you can live through the fight of your life and beat cancer, why would you not fight tooth-and-nail to live the days you’d snatched from the dragon’s jaws with every ounce of energy and passion and make it worth the fight? (Update: That woman is now my wife. We’ve been together since the day we met, in Italy, a week before I fell of the wall.)

These are just the thoughts of a self-confessed idealist. You are welcome to dismiss them and go back to the cubicle from whence you came. You probably have some very good reasons to suggest that I’m full of crap, and probably crap from unicorns and fairies. My only push-back is that I’ve seen people living profoundly impractical lives as missionaries and bush-doctors and artists and adventurers and I think, without exception, they’d agree: the risk of doing nothing and playing it safe and never falling on your face is a risk they could never live with. If failure gets them there faster, then it’s not so much to be avoided as embraced.

The original article, with some of the backstory on The Italian Incident is here.

The image at the top of this blog article is me dancing in the rain in Cambodia, 5 months after the accident that nearly killed me. It’s one of my favorite photographs. Thanks to Eve Hannah for the memory.

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  1. Pingback: What's limiting your photographic success? - Photo Proventure

  2. The timeliness of this blog sort of takes my breath away….I needed the reminder…so thank you! I’d take it even a step farther and say that there really is no such thing as failure….there is only learning.

  3. This left me speechless. I battle each day with if I am doing the right thing by being a freelancer and writing a blog as there is so much work for very little reward at the moment. Well monetary reward anyway. I loved reading this and things to keep in mind ont the daily journey! Cheers.

  4. Nice words David. You continue to be an inspiration not only in technique and process, but also in life through decisions and choice.

  5. David, I’ve been reading your words since a time shortly before Within the Frame was released, I can’t quite recall now how I was lead to your work, but I’m thankful for it. It was while reading your book, “A Beautiful Anarchy”, that I came to realize that I wasn’t living anymore. Each day I spend looking out the window of a locomotive was another day I was dreaming of wandering the wild and remote areas of the world, climbing and shooting images of my friends.

    A year and a month ago I took the leap and quit that job…in hindsight, that was the easy part. I went on a photo trip to get the creative juices flowing, I lost some weight, I learned to enjoy life again. But now….now the real work has to come, I still want so badly to share my passion for photography and adventure with people all over the world, but there is still a fear lurking inside of me. This parasite tells me there are others that are much better than myself and I’m not match for them. I tell myself it’s not true, but the thought of the risk of not making this dream come true has left me paralyzed for much of the last year. I fear that I have no idea what the f@(k I’m doing, and while that is true in terms of knowing how to run a business…I do know that my passion can not be matched for the things I want to do….I just have to get up and do them.

    Long story short, Thank You, David, for your words that you continue to write, they truly are the boost I need from time to time to get my life where I want it. I’ve taken the big steps, now I just need to walk the walk. Many thanks to you and the lessons you share with us.


    1. Author

      Thanks Jeff! I’ll reply to this more personally by email but just know that your struggle is the same one we all share. And you’re not wrong, there are others – many, even – out there that are better than you, and better than me. And no, we don’t measure up. But we don’t have to. You just have to do “you” so well that it doesn’t matter. Bring something to the table that no one else does. And yes, you’re right, this is where the hard stuff is. This is the war of art that Steven Pressfield writes about. Now it’s the entrepreneurial stuff that has to fill your heart and mind and drive your actions every day. But if you can embrace the challenge, its a hell of a ride! Check your email.

  6. Hi David, my wife and I both live with cancer. Between us we have been diagnosed and treated 5 times. Before we should have, and despite not being able to afford it, we sold our home, gave away what our two kids didn’t want, bought a motorhome and now travel Australia full time as grey nomads. There is always the risk that the cancer might come back. If it does well we will handle it. To us the greater risk was not living our lives as full as we could. We now live within our means, don’t stress about anything, continue to take risks, and love our lives. I hope that you continue to take risks and enjoy your life as much as we enjoy ours

    1. Author

      Thank you for this, John. Long – and beautiful – life to you both!

  7. Wonderful words, timely written….hmmmm, no, re-posted I guess, but timely (for me) none the less. I’m on the cusp of taking a risk, a relatively small one I suppose, but a risk none the less, and this was an encouragement I needed as I navigate the necessary changes.

    Thanks, too, for the links to the back-story on your fall. I am a more recent follower, and of course knew you’d fallen, but hadn’t read anything of the details. So glad you not only survived, but thrived!

  8. So glad you survived the wall. You are very brave (and look cute dancing in the rain).
    I may go hang-gliding now.

  9. Words of wisdom. Have been struggling with risk my entire life. You are no doubt right.

  10. David, thanks for the great post; you are a blessed person to be able to live a life of your choice and I envy you with all my heart. There’s a catch there and it’s kids. It is one thing to have to face alone the consequences of one’s own decision/s and a completely different situation to share those consequences with someone who did not have a say in the decision-taking. It’s proved a tough task for me at least.

  11. Awesome and inspirational words as usual David. To come back from what you and your Wife have been through takes great courage, perseverance and determination. The world is richer for people like you and your Wife and also my friend Cheryl who has just beaten stage 4 lung cancer against the odds. You show us that fighting is worth it and a positive attitude goes a long way to succeeding.

    *What also struck me was the photo of the newspaper. I don’t speak Italian but I swear the word spallette must translate as “splat” ?

  12. Hola David!

    Almost 5 years ago I left behind a successful career (15+ years) in Foreign Trade to follow my passion for photography (as a child I dreamt of exploring Africa as a National Geographic photographer). Last year I spent all my savings to start a Little Personal Project and today I couldn’t be happier cycling “in developing countries” making + printing + giving away portraits for those families who had none 🙂

    Federico Cabrera

  13. Thank you David! Great insight and great photo! Failure happens, its part of the process of success.

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