4 Lessons I Learned From Facing Failure

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After Apollo 13 swept through theaters in 1995, the phrase “Failure is not an option” became the rationalization of every stubborn effort to persevere at all costs, no matter how half-witted the plans were in the first place.

If you’re a trained astronaut attempting a “translunar injection maneuver” in order to save yourself and your crew from an icy death in the outer reaches of space, this may very well be the case.  But for the rest of us, failures happen sometimes.  That’s fine.  The important part is what happens next.

This past week I attempted to go one week without sleeping in.  When I came up with the idea, the thought of waking up at dawn to the brilliant morning sun streaming through my windows sounded like divine pleasure.  It was not.

On the days that I did manage to wake up earlier than usual, the peaceful solitude of the morning hours was inspiring.  But, for reasons spanning from faulty alarm clocks to late night recording marathons, there were a few days when my morning-self woke up to the screeching alarm, smashed it with a closed fist, and sailed right back into my dreams.

Except for some slight missteps in the past, this was the first One Week Without challenge that I didn’t complete to my own satisfaction.  Even so, I learned a lot of lessons along the way, and instead of wallowing in my own self-pity, I thought I might share some of them here.

1. Don’t mistake the effects of a problem for the problem itself

Last Wednesday I agreed to help a friend of mine record some songs at a studio I helped set up on Vanderbilt’s campus while I was a student there.  I already had a pretty full plate between my two jobs, but the songs and musicians involved were so good that I couldn’t say no.  We booked out the studio for the third shift, roughly 8pm to 2-3am, and determined to get it done, and done right, at all costs.

I was nervous about staying up so late, since I had already committed to my week without sleeping in, but I figured I would just suck it up and try to get by on a meager few hours of sleep each night.  That worked for one night.  After feeling miserable the next day, on the morning that followed I couldn’t bring myself to do it again, and I just turned the alarm off altogether.

Point is, my problem wasn’t sleeping in, it was staying up too late.  By trying to attack the effect of the problem without addressing the problem itself, I set myself up to fail.

2. Sometimes change is best enacted gradually

Thus far, I’ve had the most success by quitting habits cold turkey, as weaning off slowly tends to weaken my resolve to quit altogether.  Naturally, I took the same approach to this challenge, expecting that I would adapt to the new sleep cycle after a day or two.  This was a particularly awful idea.

You know how you feel when you wake up four hours earlier than usual to catch the only flight that you didn’t have to sell your furniture on Craigslist to afford?  I’ve felt like that for several days, and it hasn’t gotten any better yet.  So, while quitting television cold turkey might work fine, when you’re dealing with your body’s natural rhythms, approach with caution.

3. Don’t let early failures stop you from trying again

The first few days of this challenge were by far the hardest, and the most riddled with disappointment.  After day 3, I knew that I wouldn’t be proud of myself at week’s end, even if I finished out strong.  The temptation to just throw in the towel on the whole ordeal was strong.  Still, I managed to finish in stride and I feel much better than if I had just given up entirely, even though I’m presently writing an article about having failed the challenge.

As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  Sometimes you take to things easily and are surprised by your early success, other times you struggle at first and have to focus on gradual improvement.  All that really matters is that you keep at it, and try to do better each day than the day before.

4. Use your failure as motivation to do better next time

Negativity begets negativity.  If I allowed myself to wallow in my defeat I might just give up entirely.  Instead, I’m going to use this minor setback to strengthen my resolve to do better on each successive challenge.

I’m not keen on using more than one quote from a politician per article, but this bit of zen from honest Abe Lincoln was too good of a closing thought to resist: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”

may we all get better together.


Start your own One Week With/out challenge!  Begin here.


  1. Mandy says

    Great post.
    I failed miserably all week, but learned what works & learned about my sleep patterns. Fear of failure is one of human kind’s most common fears, especially for writers. I’ve enjoyed your posts. Tomorrow’s a new start!