Failure Comes in Two Flavors

by Chuck Westbrook on April 1, 2009

When you take a risk, by definition, there’s a chance you will fail. From trying to train for a marathon to asking someone on a date to making a phone call. There are going to be times when it doesn’t go your way.

People understand that. There’s plenty of warning from friends, family, and gurus that you should brace yourself for it.

But what is less often discussed is that failure comes in two flavors:

  1. Failure that is excusable. (Could happen to anyone.)
  2. Failure that is inexcusable. (You really goofed.)

The first kind of failure is those that people will sympathize with and forgive you for. It’s something that’s totally out of your control or the kind of mistake that could have happened to anyone.

But the second kind of failure never has a good excuse. You simply didn’t do what you should have done, and there are consequences. There’s little sympathy to be found when you screw up absolutely.

Expect to encounter both on your way to ultimate success.

You won’t win them all. That’s part of life. But beyond that, if you’re trying to do something big, your habits, your personality, your work ethic, your temper–some part of who you are will cause trouble for you or for others.

When you’re fundamentally at fault, it can be painful to face up to it and change that part of who you are. But if you can tell the difference between the two flavors, you stand a better chance of avoiding burnout and solving problems, and you will grow as a person as well.

Image by B. K. Dewey.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


John Lacey 04.01.09 at 7:50 pm

I don’t approach life in this manner. I tend to think of everything as an opportuity to experiment. (Infact it’s probably the only aspect of high school science classes that has left any impact on my pscyhe.) You start with an idea, you develop an approach to testing that theory and then you consider the results and formulate a conclusion. I haven’t found much benefit in berating myself when I haven’t done something the way I expected I would have. If anything I’ve started cultivating a sense of kindness and patience towards myself, giving myself permission to follow odd impulses just to see where they lead.



Chuck Westbrook 04.01.09 at 8:58 pm

I like that approach, thinking of everything as an experiment.



Karen 04.01.09 at 9:36 pm

Why the post on failure? And, the definitions are so black and white. Is it because the original blog idea ran out of steam? If so, I certainly don’t see it as a failure. The only failure is a refusal to try. Wayne Gretsky has a saying that goes something like.. “The only shots I miss are the ones I don’t take.”



Chuck 04.01.09 at 10:15 pm

It comes off as more bleak than I had intended. I agree with you. My point was that sometimes we don’t reach our goals for reasons that are deep rooted in who we are. When that happens, we should try to grow. I think I missed the tone on this post. I’ll pick a new topic tomorrow.



Glenn Mandelkern 04.04.09 at 11:53 am

I took special interest in reading this about flavors of failure (roughly analogous to “limitations” vs. “weakness”) because the subject isn’t given enough attention in any kind of formal education. You’re never taught how to recover from setbacks. You take classes on strategic planning; what if a competitor launches a product that shreds your schedule and market to smithereens? How do you keep going, raise revenue and stay in control yourself?

I’ve seen very talented people who went to the top schools, worked for world renowned firms and then for the first time in their 30’s or 40’s encounter personal and/or professional adversity. They’re completely lost and don’t know what to do.

I especially see this when companies ask for “proven track records.” That’s a nicely disguised plea for guarantees. What they’re really saying is they too don’t know how to handle failure.

Maybe you’ve heard the line that “past success determines future success.” Sorry, in a world where yesterday’s laws don’t apply because things change so fast, here’s what I’m discovering: Successful people can fail. And people who’ve failed can perform.

I prefer much more hiring a salesman who’s encountered rejections and has transformed several into paying customers. The ones who claim they can sell everything haven’t developed the skill set of what to do when things go south. You really savor victories more once you’ve hit a few wrong notes. (And some of those people are actually funner to work/play with.)


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