When I was a senior in college, I decided to join the cross country team. I’d run my senior year of high school and enjoyed it, but assumed that you had to be fast to run in college (which I wasn’t). I didn’t learn until senior year that anyone could join the team.
So I did.
We had a couple of weeks of training before our first race, and during this time each member of the team met with the coach to set some expectations and goals about the coming season. I knew how fast I’d been in high school and how quickly I’d developed, thought that I’d probably gotten stronger, and knew that I hadn’t actually run competitively in almost 4 years. With those thoughts in mind, I set a time goal for myself that was an educated guess of what I thought I could potentially do. Our races were 8K (5 miles), and I set a sub 40 minute goal for myself (like I said: not fast).
The season was difficult to say the least. Jumping into a college running program head first with very little preparation was not easy (and probably not smart). It took me a couple weeks to get up to full distance or full reps in workouts, and my race times actually got slower during the first half of the season. I ran 6 8Ks that season, and my final race was my fastest. My first mile was the fastest mile I’d ever run and my time at the 5K mark was the fastest I’d ever run, but I knew I was slowing down. When all was said and done, I’d finished my last 8K of the year in 40:16.
In the interview for the job I currently have, I was asked a question that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t remember the specific wording, but the question was essentially, “What was a time that you failed?” Not, “what is something you learned from failure,” “What was something you failed at but overcame,” but “what was a time that you failed.” I even asked to clarify whether this was related to my previous job that we’d just been talking about or just to my life in general, and the question was just about a time that I failed ever.
This was a difficult question for a number of reasons, the first being that I have tend to try to brute force think through my entire life when I get a question as broad as that (especially when I’m not expecting it). The second was that I had a legitimately difficult time trying to come up with a failure to talk about. Some of this was related to the format; typically you try to build yourself up in an interview, not talk about your failures on their own. At the same time, I had a realization that failure (or the circumstances surrounding failure) is not always black and white.
We ended up needing to come back to the question, and I came up with a somewhat coherent statement of a time that I didn’t actually fail (sort of), but I’ve continued to think about the question and about failure in general since the interview happened.
Think back to my cross country story. The goal I set was a very clear, black and white marker, and I failed to reach the goal. But was my season a failure? I got faster and stronger during the course of the season, made friends on the team, did something I wasn’t sure I could do, and held myself together throughout the season. I fought through incredibly difficult experiences to get where I got to, but I failed to reach my somewhat arbitrarily picked goal. I failed to reach the goal, but in no way can I say that the season was a failure.
How many of our failures come in the midst of success? How many of our failures inform future success? How many of our failures actually stop us from doing what we’re doing?
The answer can, unfortunately, be taken positively and negatively: not all of them. Let us recognize the gray areas associated with failure: some failure does drive us to succeed, but some failure is terminal. Some success comes only because of what we learn through failure, but some success needs no failure to inform it. We don’t always get to pick how failure affects our decisions, either. This does not mean, however, that we immediately assume that some specific failure means the end of a project or a goal. If I may be allowed to pontificate here, we must learn by doing (when possible) whether a failure is terminal or the start of our successes.
Additionally, how we approach our failures can affect what our failures mean. So often athletes players are told to have short memories, to forget the previous play because mistakes can have a negative effect on future plays if too much time is spent focusing on them. At the same time, how can a player develop and learn from their mistakes if they do not focus on what they can learn from the past? The fact of failing not only has an effect, but how we think about and approach our failures has an effect as well.
I say all of this after a great deal of reflection. Looking back at my failures, I see a common thread weaving through most of them: comfort. I was either comfortable where I was and didn’t want to be uncomfortable, or was uncomfortable and shrunk back because I wanted to be more comfortable. I have discovered many things that I do not want to do and have quit certain things or decided not to go back to certain things, but is that a failure or a success? How do we sort through our experiences to determine the black and white failures and successes?
Even after my reflection, I still need more time to answer the interviewer’s question. Maybe I just don’t want to admit my failures to a stranger; maybe I can’t figure out how to tell a good story; maybe I just want to make myself look good with the failures I talk about (#humblebrag). Like so many other things, I have no concrete answers to my questions. How fitting to fail at defining failure.