“Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years.”
– Japanese Proverb
Every couple of months, Dr. Ai, the founder of Classroom Without Walls, asks me to speak to one of her students, who is usually of high-school or college age.
We hop on a Zoom call and I tell them a little about myself. Then they drill me with questions. And I answer them as best as I can.
It’s always a lot of fun.
On the most recent of these calls, two students asked me a question that I thought was particularly important.
“When you fail,” they said, “how do you deal with that mentally and emotionally?”
I stumbled over my answer as I realized that this question begged an even more important question: what is failure?
Just as important, what is success?
They (as most of us) were assuming the most popular definitions…
- Success is getting what you want.
- Failure is not getting what you want.
Life is far too nuanced to support such unflinching definitions.
You might not want what you thought you wanted, for instance, after you get it (such is the process of discovery).
And that “failure” you face might be the very thing that pushes you toward a better, more fulfilling future.
The more you think about it, the more these black-and-white definitions of success and failure seem inadequate.
What’s say we try to redefine it?
Let’s take a look at some popular quotes from some of the world’s most successful people…
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ― Winston Churchill
“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” ― Woody Allen
“Success is falling nine times and getting up 10.” — Jon Bon Jovi
“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” — William Feather
“Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.” — Arianna Huffington
If you’re like me, then maybe you see those quotes and apply it to whatever your current goal is — I’ve just got to hang on a little bit longer!
But I think that misses the point.
The point is not that the doing leads to success, but that success is in the doing.
That is, the process of doing things that are meaningful to you — the Japanese call this your Ikigai — creates long-term happiness and fulfillment (i.e. success).
Maybe it makes you a lot of money. Maybe it doesn’t.
Maybe you become famous. Maybe you don’t.
That’s not what matters.
Success is doing something that means something.
(Here are 7 awesome questions from Mark Manson that will help you find your Ikigai)
What does all of this mean for failure?
It is nothing more than the natural trials and tribulations that come with doing, which often provide lessons for us to travel the path more effectively.
The only way we can fail, then, in the traditional sense is by stopping doing things that are meaningful to us.
Defeat is not failure. Accepting defeat is — and even then, only until you get back up and dust off your discouragement.