The challenge of failure

“We learn to…color the inside of the square by scribbling outside the box…we either learn to fail or we fail to learn.” p. xvi

For this second post on Tal Ben-Shahar’s book The Pursuit of Perfect I want to continue the discussion about the uncomfortable topic of failure. What makes talking about failure challenging? I would argue it is because we frequently see failure as something that is personal, permanent and pervasive. When we make failure about the person, we lose our ability to see the impact of the situation or context. When we make failure a permanent state, we neglect to make room for change and growth. When we make failure pervasive, we generalize from a single instance and conclude that the whole is without value. When we see our failures as about us as people, as something we cannot change and something that will seep into every other aspect of our lives, the result is typically paralysis and fear.

“ [A]voiding failure…invests it with much more power than it deserves, the pain associated with the fear of failure is usually more intense than the pain following an actual failure.” p. 21

What can we do to change our relationship with failure?

“Active acceptance is about recognizing things are they are and then choosing the course of action we deem appropriate and worthy of ourselves. It is about recognizing that at every moment in our life we have a choice—to be afraid and yet to act courageously, to feel jealous and yet act benevolently, to accept being human and act with humanity.” p. 57

We can acknowledge that we cannot control the world, only our own behavior. That is, without losing our sense of accountability, we can move to a more realistic position in which our role and the situational constraints are both part of the equation. We can shake off the all-or-none mindset that tells us that one failure means failing forever more and recognize that we live in the now and can make new choices at any point. Moreover, we can court a more flexible attitude to those things that we cannot change and see them as givens with which we need to work rather than limitations that prevent us from taking any action at all.

“We need to accept that we sometimes do not and cannot know. We need to embrace uncertainty in order to feel more comfortable in its presence. Then, once we feel comfortable with our ignorance, we are better prepared to reconstruct our discomfort with the unknown into a sense of awe and wonder. It is about relearning to perceive the world—and our lives—as a miracle unfolding.” p. 222

Let’s get to that scribbling, grateful for all the awe and wonder this world has to offer.


Tal Ben-Shahar. (2009). The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill. Or the 2010 paperback Being Happy: You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The challenge of failure

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