“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
– Paul Coelho, The Alchemist –
This is the first in a series of blog posts that talk about success. I had the opportunity to ask the registered attendees for SQLSaturday Philippines to vote for a particular topic that they like best. Since I usually talk about professional development for IT Professionals at the PASS Summit, I provided a list of topics from presentation skills to landing your dream job. This was the one that got the most number of votes: What Your College Education Didn’t Teach You About Success.
If you look at any dictionary, you will find the word FAILURE before the word SUCCESS. I think it was meant for a reason. Real success comes from accepting the fact that one has to experience failure first. I have yet to meet somebody who’s very successful who have not had any failures.
This was the very first slide in my presentation about what our education doesn’t teach us about success: FAILURE IS MANDATORY. The audience was shocked. Indeed, nobody told them that failure is mandatory for success. We all grew up thinking that failure should be avoided like the plague. Our parents have the noblest intention when they told us not to pursue anything too risky. Our teachers penalized incorrect test answers. Our managers confronted us for our mistakes. We’ve been raised, taught, and trained to avoid failure at all cost. Everybody thinks that failure is just that: FAILURE. And that’s where the biggest challenge is. It requires unlearning all those years of getting used to avoiding failure at all cost. It requires a total change of mindset.
During the presentation, I shared a story about me winning the SQLSentry contest last year. The contest was about convincing SQLSentry why I am worth sending to the SQLSkills Immersion Training. Most contestants will think of the different ways that they can showcase their capabilities, their successes, etc. After all, nobody ever won a contest because they were failures. For my entry, I decided to do something different. I listed out some of my failures
- I failed 17 courses while pursuing my undergraduate degree
- My first startup failed
- I crashed production servers at work
People who know me understand that I’m not comfortable with failure. I’m very competitive and I push myself to the limit. Yet, at a young age, I realized that I need to embrace failure as a means to succeed. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way. And it sure wasn’t something taught to me inside the classroom (although it was a side effect of being inside the classroom.) I failed my very first math course in the university. This was despite the fact that I joined math contests during my high school days. I was devastated. I tried to hide all evidences that I failed – from the exam results to the class cards being sent at home. It sure wasn’t a good story to tell my former high school classmates who thought that I was pretty cool with math. But then it hit me. The failure experience need to be transformed into lessons learned.
- Failures taught me to refocus on what’s important. Failing doesn’t mean one is a failure. We need to separate the activity from the individual. I failed my math course. That doesn’t mean I was a failure. Because who I am is more valuable than what I can do. Far too often we associate ourselves with what we have accomplished than who we really are. It should be the other way around. We should be able to tell ourselves this: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something.” There’s a very big difference between the two.
- Failure taught me to redefine what success means to me. We often fall into the trap of someone else’s definition of success. We think that having a big house, a nice car, a progressive career and a stable job meant success. We’ve been taught and conditioned to think that way. Haven’t we all heard the saying, “Go to school, get good grades, find a stable job, and retire” from those who are a generation ahead of ours? That’s because it has worked for them. But what worked for them might not work for us. I realized that I need a new definition of success, one that is aligned with my very purpose. It took me a while to redefine what success means to me because I had to understand what my life’s purpose is. But when I did, it was easier to accept failure. I knew that my purpose was to help people grow and develop their fullest potential. I now see failure as a step towards achieving my purpose. As long as I’m fulfilling my purpose, I’m in good terms with failure.
- Failure taught me that it’s not what happens during that matters. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sorry for yourself after failing. That’s just human nature. However, what you do after the failure determines whether or not you end up being successful. Most of us feel a sense of fear after experiencing failure that we dare not try again. I’ve had my fair share of fears. I almost quit pursuing an engineering degree after failing my first math course in the university. After all, engineering is all about math and science. At the end of the semester, I was more determined to pursue an engineering degree. It took me another semester to pass that math course. But it gave me a sense of fulfillment knowing that I conquered my fear. I still failed other courses in my undergraduate program – my transcript is proof of that. But that didn’t stop me from completing my degree. It’s not what happens during your failure that matters. What matters is how you deal with it afterwards.
Learn to be comfortable with failure. It’s a prerequisite for success. So important that Dr. John C. Maxwell, America’s leadership expert, wrote an entire book about it – Failing Forward. It’s a guidebook for turning mistakes into stepping stones for success.
In case you’re interested, here’s my entry to the SQLSentry contest. You be the judge.