What does it mean to be a failure?

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

I googled the word 'failure' and I've got two dictionary entries:

1) a lack of success

2) the neglect or omission of expected or required action

And these entries got me thinking really hard. What does it really mean then, when we say that we have "a lack of success"? In what area specifically? If I'm "a failure", does it mean that I lack success in everything?

Just thinking back about my morning. I succeeded in waking up on time for a zoom call. I succeeded in getting out of my bed. I succeeded in finishing my breakfast. So... if I feel like a failure this very morning, I might want to ask myself: in what area specifically have I failed in? Here are some of my thoughts:

1) We should be specific in what we're lacking.

We may easily get overwhelmed if we speak of ourselves - our entire self - as a "failure". And it's not quite useful, isn't it? In school, we've learnt to look at a mark on a test paper - a mark that sums up your present standard - and to form a conclusion that you have either passed or failed. Notice that the mark always correlated with a specific subject. And what the student can then do is to work on that subject to overcome that failure. Looking back at life and the possibilities it provides, can you then be more specific about what you have "failed" in, so that we can form concrete steps to overcome it?

2) And yes, what if failure is merely feedback?

During my university days, I realised that the 50% mark may not always be the imaginary line indicating a pass or a fail. In fact, the mark may shift up or down, depending on contexts. Perhaps an easier test would require a higher 'passing mark' while a lower 'passing mark' may be necessary for another more challenging assessment. What about practical assessments? Fine - we can use numbers and rubrics to try quantifying standards. What about even more complex assessments like a student or client's potential? What about more abstract areas like your relationships? What is "failure" in those contexts? Would it be more useful to pay more attention to feedback on specific areas so that you can emerge stronger and move even further?

3) What if failure is merely an omission of a required action?

Yes - I'm co-opting the second definition of "failure" that I got from google. I love the word "omission" because it implies that you can put something in place - that omitted thing - and that missing and tangible puzzle piece constitutes what you can do next to get what you want. It gives you mobility. It gives you freedom. It give you joy.

Ultimately, the word "failure" is a noun that makes you feel stuck and what you can do is to transform it into a verb to ask yourself gently: "What specifically have I failed in? What is the missing puzzle piece?"