Thomas Edison worked feverishly to discover a suitable element for the filament of his light bulb prototype.  He and his assistants tried many, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of different elements.  Each attempt ended in failure.  Nothing worked.  Feeling great despair, some in his lab wanted to give up.  But Edison wouldn’t have it.  His reputed response to the accumulated weight of failure went something like this:  how wonderful, I’ve found so many ways it doesn’t work. 

Edison would not be denied.  He experienced all the dead ends and failures as important and necessary learning opportunities.  One can almost hear the excitement in his voice at each successive failure.  He was learning even more ways it didn’t work.  What an extraordinary attitude to cultivate.

Edison’s perspective is, alas, uncommon.  Who among us maintains an ebullient attitude in the face of repeated failure? 

Most of us feel frustrated, disappointed, even embittered by our mistakes.  And we feel diminished, embarrassed, even ashamed of our failures.  Our mistakes and failures become closely guarded secrets, lest we secure reputations for being losers. 

Someone once said that behind every great success lies a great failure.  How can it be otherwise?  Being bold enough to achieve great success, means being bold enough to risk great failure. There is no alternative to experiencing the necessary blood, sweat and tears. The road to success must be littered by failure. A legendary attorney, who advised several presidents in the mid-20th century, was asked how he became such a great lawyer?  His immediate response?  He became accomplished by making every mistake in the book. 

There is nothing easy about making friends with mistakes or failure.  They rattle our self-esteem and challenge our self-confidence.  An important part of the work here involves addressing unrealistic expectations about achieving success with minimum or no experience of failure. Think of the proverbial overnight show biz success that took twenty years.  And consider this sage reflection from the twelve step rooms:  the slower you go, the faster you get there.  This applies everywhere in life.

How do we learn not to feel threatened by failure and avoid becoming demoralized like Edison’s assistants?  And how do we remain self-confident enough, like Edison, to welcome inevitable missteps as invaluable teachers? 

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Neal Aponte

Neal Aponte is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience providing psychotherapy for adults, adolescents and children. Read more here.