Permission to Fail

Posted by on Apr 13, 2013 in Creativity, Kaizen-Muse, Ultimate Blog Challenge | 13 comments

Permission to Fail

Last Saturday, I posted about giving yourself permission to rest. There are a lot of kinds of permission that we often feel we need, so I’m going to be giving you permission on Saturdays during the blog challenge. This week’s theme, as you’ve no doubt noticed, is “permission to fail.”

I mentioned last week that we seem to think that we need to run 24/7, like the proverbial well-oiled machine, in order to be worthy of our existence in Western society. Employers, family, and friends expect so much of us that we all collectively forget that we need to stop to recharge.

Well, Western society clearly needs a serious reality check, because we’re also never allowed to fail. You may have noticed this. If you haven’t, you must be visiting from some lucky part of the world not plagued with unrealistic expectations of the human being, and I’m jealous.

The rest of us…we’re not allowed to fail. We have to be little success machines. Operative word there: machines. It’s not natural for us not to fall flat on our faces. And it often isn’t good for us; in fact, it can stop your next project dead in its tracks.

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

Think back to when you were a kid and got your first bike. Remember how long it took you to learn to ride it. Specifically, I want you to remember the number of times you fell. The scrapes that led you crying back into the house for a visit with Dr. Mom. The fear you may have felt when you were encouraged to get back on and try again.

None of that’s fun, right? I doubt that any of us would want to do it again. But you did it, and not only did you survive, you learned to ride a bike. You also learned balance and improved your coordination. Not a bad reward for some scraped knees and bruised pride.

Later, you probably went through a similar process when you learned to drive (especially if you drive stick, which I am convinced can only be learned by screwing up over and over again), started your first job, bought your first house, became a parent… There’s a pattern here!

Some things in life have to be learned through failure. Some involve failing multiple times. That painting you’re working on may not come together until the sixth or seventh time—and that’s okay, because you’ll have learned something along the way. (And some organizations are finally cluing in that failure is a really good thing, because if you’re not failing, you’re not trying.)

I hereby give you permission to fall flat on your face, and the courage to get right back up and try again. It’s the only way you’ll get where you want to be.


  1. Failure teaches us what not to do again next time. It makes us better. I’d honesty be hesitant to associate with anyone who couldn’t admit to failure!

    • You and me both, Gwynne. And yet, culturally, we’ve been led to believe that we have to be perfect all the time. Not possible, but expected anyway. It’s so freeing to be willing to fall on your face and try again.

  2. Valuable post and topic, Nancy! There really is worth in failing and learning from our mistakes. I appreciate what you said about how somethings in life have to be learned by failure. It is so true. Often, we forget the value of our own learning experiences.
    Jocelyn Kelly recently posted..INTERVIEW: Maria HillMy Profile

    • Thanks, Jocelyn! I think a lot of really basic, important stuff in life has to be learned by falling down. My wee nephew is doing his best right now to learn to crawl. He hasn’t succeeded yet, but he keeps trying. If we all gave up whenever we fall down, none of us would have figured out how to walk! I’ve worked in places where failure is not allowed, and it stifles everything from organizational innovation to personal development. I’m a big, big fan of failure. :)

  3. Love this idea. Giving ourselves permission may sound strange, but not if we consider how often we restrict ourselves.

    Stopping in from the Ultimate Blog Challenge.
    Happy weekend to you!
    Linda Ann
    Linda Ann – Nickers and Ink recently posted..L is for Laughter – Rhymed Acrostics A to ZMy Profile

    • You’ve hit it on the head, Linda. We restrict ourselves all the time, and a lot of us don’t even realize we’re waiting for someone to give us permission to do the things we want to do. That’s why I decided that every Saturday this month, I’m giving out permission. :)

  4. Hi Nancy!

    I wrote a post not long ago about why I stopped believing in failure. Only success & learning. I wrote it because of what you said: our society doesn’t allow/like when people fail. But the only way to learn something, IMO, is to fail, figure out what went wrong, then try again.

    Great post!
    Shelli Johnson recently posted..Encourage Yourself Challenge ~ Day 5My Profile

    • Exactly, Shelli. Edison once said that he hadn’t failed, he’d merely found a thousand ways that didn’t work. But that didn’t mean he stopped–he kept going until he figured it out. It’s exactly the same thing. Modern society extols Edison and folks like him, but ignores the fact that he failed many, many times before he found the way that did work.

  5. Another great post, Nancy. Thank you for sharing.
    Carlana recently posted..6 Tips for Closing a SaleMy Profile

  6. One of my favorite teachers talks about the power of failure to create our moments of maximum creativity. For example: In the sales call, when does the salesperson think of new answers – when everything is going well and they’re using familiar arguments? or when the prospect asks an important question the salesperson hasn’t had to answer before? Or for a better example: The invention of Post-It Notes. The original assignment was an adhesive that would remain tacky for a period of hours, and then dry. Only this one didn’t ever fully dry, or rather, it became dry without loosing its tackiness. A complete failure, in terms of the assignment. But a wonderful tool that we’ve all been using ever since. Discovered, by the way, because technicians and engineers were using the rejects rather than just tossing them in the trash.

    One of my favorite teachers says we should be teaching our kids to fail as often as possible, and we should be praising them for taking the risks when they do. It’s the only way they can learn (walking, biking, but also anything in the creative arena) – and we should let them practice picking themselves up after failure and continuing to risk.

    Thanks for this post – and for the reminder. Time for me to go take the risk I’ve been postponing all week.

    • Maggie, I love the Post-It example! It’s a great one, and also illustrates the way that we may think we’re trying to develop one thing, but if we let ourselves actually play around and experiment (and maybe fail!) we might find out it’s actually something else. That happens a lot in writing, from my own personal experience, but it can happen anywhere.

      I agree that we should be teaching our kids to fail. It’s a vital skill. And it also teaches them persistence and that failure’s not the end of the world. There’s a great Atalntic article from a few years ago that deals with this question and I highly recommend it.

      I hope that you gave yourself permission to fail mightily at that risk you’d been postponing! :)

  7. Another great post Nancy. Society has such a poor outlook on not succeeding all the time it puts pressure to always do good at each and every occasion. We should give ourselves permission to fail! Thank you for sharing.
    Carlana recently posted..6 Tips for Closing a SaleMy Profile

    • Thanks, Carlana! We really have pressured ourselves into an unsustainable state, and most of us don’t even realize it. Here’s hoping we come to our senses soon!

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