Reframing Failure

“Failure is the mother of success!(失敗是成功的母親!)

How often do you hear that?

As a child growing up in Hong Kong, I heard that catchphrase almost every day at home, at school and from friends. I was led to believe that I should embrace failure like I would hug my mother because it was where every good thing comes. Well, that is a nice idea because the moral of that motto was to encourage my feeble mind to toughen up and not to give up, to see the purpose of failure and not to begrudge or to feel ashamed.

For a long time, I dutifully put that precept into practice and even mumbled that canon (in Chinese)
“Failure is the mother of success!” 失敗是成功的母親!
“Failure is the mother of success!” 失敗是成功的母親!
I kept repeating that to myself over and over during my college days and early career struggles. That mindless mantra worked for a while when I needed to endure a loss and reignite the grit to persevere.

But as I face more complex challenges at work, I realize that the word, “failure” – whether in Chinese 失敗, or in English as we understand it focuses on what we lack. For example, when we fail a test in school, or a business goal, we fall short of a set standard. Those shortcomings highlight what we could not achieve or deliver as expected, by self, family or the workplace.

The negative emphasis of “failure’ is not just intimidating, threatening and dis-incentivising, it is also misleading. It’s misleading because it leads us down the path of feeling inadequate guilty, shameful and fearful of “failing” again. The concept “failure” in and of itself fails to illuminate how we miss the mark. I find it more uplifting and constructive to reframe “failure” simply as the “aha moment”, full of pearls of wisdom waiting for me to pick and choose. I find it much more exciting to go to a checklist of “misses” as if it were a treasure box of wonders, and to ask specific questions about where and how the breakdown occurred.

What I find to be consistently true in almost my “failures” (school, workplace, relationships) is a mix of misreading, miscalculating and misjudging.

Misreading, Miscalculating, Misjudging

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For example, if I were applying for a job or a school and I didn’t get it.
I would ask myself –
how did I read this “job” or “school” to be desirable for me? Location? Prestige? Pay?
What was I looking for? What were “they” looking for?
How did I misjudge what I wanted versus what they needed?
How did I miscalculate what I had to offer (my attributes, attitudes, skillset and mindset) versus what they saw fit for my role?
How did I miscalculate the cost v. benefit ratio? Cost is also calculated in terms of time and energy invested in addition to money spent. Benefit includes immediate and long-term.

In personal or business relationships, when things are not working out as expected, I turn to these questions –
How did I misjudge the character of this person? What was I misled by? What did I fall for, and why?
How did I misread his/her intention? What makes that good and bad?
How can this relationship be salvaged? Converted?
What was lost by my mistakes in this relationship?
What did I miss that I can’t replace?

What’s your list of “misses?”
Failing to see what and how we miss the mark is the true tragedy of failures. Let’s graduate from students of our own “aha moment” to teachers so we not only learn but can also instruct ourselves from these “misses.” Often, we have as much to gain from the bad as from the good.

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.

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