Permission to Fail

Here’s a handful of quotes to inspire you to fail and fail again because failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s also a part of life.

If you’re not failing, maybe it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.

So go out there and fail better, fail faster. Rack up as many failures as you possibly can!

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. –Edwin Land

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. –Winston Churchill

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything. –E. J. Phelps

It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket. –Werhner von Braun

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. –Ken Robinson

Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. –Leonard Cohen

I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot… and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s precisely why I succeed. –Michael Jordan

To develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can. –Richard P. Feynman

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember, that’s where you will find success. –Thomas J. Watson

Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo. –Jon Sinclair

An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. –Charles Kettering

I failed my way to success. –Thomas Edison

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckettt

To be wrong is nothing unless you continue to remember it. –Confucius


The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. –Linus Pauling

If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied. –Alfred Nobel

I’m a perfectionist, which I think is a mistake. –Michelle Shocked

So try not to be too attached to any of the ideas you currently have or to take failure personally. Use the results—good or bad—as feedback not as evidence. And begin again.

How Quickly Can You Turn Success into Failure?


We don’t have to make a point of looking for what isn’t working or the places where we haven’t lived up to our expectations. Our brain automatically notices those things and points them out to us. It’s wired to pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones. That’s because while positive events may be extremely pleasurable and possibly even good for us, negative events could kill us or put us in grave danger. At least that’s how the unconscious part of the brain (System 1) perceives them. This automatic tendency is so universal it has a name: the negativity bias.

In and of itself, having a brain that points out what isn’t working or measures how far we missed the mark isn’t a bad thing. That kind of information is potentially very useful.  It’s the way we over-value and respond to negative information that gets us into trouble. Because we have a brain that is primed to notice the negative, it’s easy for us to overlook the positive altogether, even when there’s plenty of positive for the eye to behold.

When Good Isn’t Good Enough to Qualify

Several of my clients are addressing health-related issues in my Goals, Habits & Intentions course. They have either set long-term goals to achieve specific results in terms of such things as diet and exercise or they are working on changing or creating habits that support the level of health and well-being they want to achieve.

One person who has diabetes is working on lowering her blood glucose level (which is measured by a test called the A1c). She decided to aim for lowering her A1c to a specific number and created a goal action plan to help her do that. She was following her plan just fine until she purchased a kit from a drugstore to do a home test and got a result that was better than the one she was aiming for.

At that point, she pretty much stopped following her plan. But when she got her official A1c test results back from the lab a few weeks later, they were disappointing. The number was not as low as the one she’d gotten from her home test. Her view of the situation was that she had failed—not just in continuing to follow that specific goal action plan, but in doing the Goals, Habits & Intentions coursework.

So I was surprised to learn that her A1c result was lower than it had been the last time she was tested. And the number last time she was tested was lower than it had been at the beginning of the year. From the first test to the third test, she had lowered her A1c by 1.6 points! By any objective measure, that’s a significant success. Instead of celebrating it, however, she discounted it. Her successful results were a failure in her own eyes because they weren’t quite as amazing as she’d thought they would be.

I suggested she make a visual chart that tracked her A1c numbers over the course of this year and put it up in a prominent location so the irrefutable evidence of her success would be harder to ignore.

The Default Response

This is a pernicious problem we all face: jumping to conclusions about the information provided to us by our brain and by external sources. It can happen at either end of the scale (“good” news or “bad” news), but the interesting thing is that the result of both good news and bad news is often the same: we stop whatever it is we were doing. And the culprit in both cases is System 1 thinking, which is focused entirely on the short term.

If the news is “good,” we stop because we think we achieved our goal so we don’t need to continue working toward it. That makes a certain amount of sense because that’s what you do when you actually achieve a goal. But in a lot of cases we need to set up a goal in order to change or start a habit so we can maintain our success. This is especially important in the area of health and wellness. If we want to maintain long-term changes, we can’t stop doing the things that are making us healthier. Instead, we need to turn them into habits. (As an aside, I read a blog post a couple of years ago by someone who set out to develop a 30-day habit of strength training. After the 30 days he decided he had been successful and didn’t need to do it any longer.)

If the news is “bad,” we use it as evidence of our poor character (lack of self-control, powerlessness, etc.) and of the pointlessness of our attempts. Why bother? Nothing works, anyway. The automatic tendency isn’t to evaluate what might have gone wrong, but to chuck the whole thing, thus guaranteeing failure and maybe even overlooking evidence of success.

Celebrate Success!

I used to be able to count on getting in several workouts at the gym each week. And I loved it. But at the beginning of this year, my daily schedule went bonkers and has stayed that way. After months of attempting to fit the gym into my new schedule, I traded the gym for walking every day because I can break walking into smaller segments of time and fit them into the breaks between classes and appointments. As September approached, I decided it was time to exchange a couple of days of walking each week for using the treadmill at the gym.

I went to the gym at the beginning of the first week, loved it, and thought I could probably get in not just one more visit but two that week. Nevertheless, I managed only the one visit. The same thing happened the next week and then the week after that. I noticed I had failed to follow through on my original intention. I noticed the impulse to interpret my once-a-week gym visits as a failure. But I also acknowledged I really hadn’t had an opportunity to get in more time at the gym, and I’d kept up my walking and even increased it. I reminded myself that baby steps and perseverance are an almost unbeatable combination. At the end of three weeks, I looked at the notations on my calendar and realized I’d gotten in three more workouts on the treadmill than I would have if I hadn’t set an intention.

In order to celebrate success, we have to notice it, which means not having a knee-jerk reaction to every realization we haven’t met or exceeded our expectations. The game is only over when we stop playing—and that is largely up to us.

When have you turned a success into a failure? What do you think you could do to change your perspective in those kinds of situations?

What Gets in the Way

Yoda (Photo credit: pirate johnny)

What keeps us from achieving the things we want or even set out to achieve? Science writer David DiSalvo (What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite) seems to like why questions—which I’m on record as opposing. He wrote an article for Forbes titled “The 10 Reasons Why We Fail,” which he describes as reflections on falling short—more precisely, why we fail despite ourselves.

Two of his reasons—the first and last, as it happens—really resonate for me based on my own experience and the experiences of friends and acquaintances.

 You Don’t Believe You Can Do It

Luke: I can’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

The crucial part of Yoda’s dialogue with Luke is “believe.” The human brain is a powerful problem-solving and prediction making machine, and it operates via a multitude of feedback loops. What matters most in the feedback loop dynamic is input—what goes into the loop that begins the analysis-evaluation-action process, which ultimately results in an outcome. Here’s the kicker: if your input shuttle for achieving a goal lacks the critical, emotionally relevant component of belief, then the feedback loop is drained of octane from the start. Another way to say that is—why would you expect a convincingly successful outcome when you haven’t convinced yourself that it’s possible?

Believing you can do something is a precursor to intentionally changing or initiating a habit. If you start out believing you can’t do it, you will more than likely fulfill that prophecy.

You’re Confused about What to Do

Of all of these 10 ideas, this one is to me the most difficult because it plagues me almost constantly. Gearing up the cerebral feedback loop for achievement is one thing, but without a sense of focus and direction, all of that energy isn’t going to yield very much in the end. My experience has been that sometimes you have to let the energy flow for a while without too firm a sense of direction and see if focus emerges organically. Once it does, you can then nurture it into a more structured method for getting where you want to go.

Confusion abounds, especially when people think they ought to know what to do and where to go, but don’t. There are several ways to prime the pump to gain some clarity about what to do next. Often, however, we and our brains are so frantically busy going in whatever direction we’re going that we can’t slow down enough to realize we don’t actually know what the heck we’re doing.