“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill
To have a dream, to cultivate it, and to see it succeed, is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. Whether it be the dream to launch a career or business, to be married, have a family, to write a book or a blog or even climb a mountain, our dreams represent an intersection of our desires and values, and an outworking of our unique gifts and skills. A dream can meet a need in our community, and can be a meaningful offering to the world around us. But whilst realizing a dream can be an emotional high-point, the pain of losing one can be difficult to bear. When we pour our heart and soul into a meaningful and purposeful endeavour, seeing it collapse or fail to grow can be discouraging, confusing, and disorienting. A door closed on a job or study opportunity, a failed business, infertility or the dissolution of a marriage, can be heartbreaking curveball moments that can lead us to question why we ever pursued our dream in the first place. Indeed, there is always inherent danger in making ourselves vulnerable, in stepping out and taking a risk. For as surely as we will hope, dream, and even succeed, we will also encounter set-backs and failures. But as John Shedd once said “A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.” We were designed to take risks and pursue opportunities, even if the outcome can’t be guaranteed.
All too often we define our own life by the success of our projects, our careers, our businesses, and even our children. When they are thriving, we feel we’ve made it; that we have purpose and worth. When adversity and set-backs come, we may feel panicked, and lose hope and confidence. While these responses are natural in the moment, if we allow them to take hold, it can be difficult to pick ourselves up and move forward with new endeavours. We may retreat and shrink back from opportunities, becoming fixated on what we have lost, and fearful about taking future risks. Our society’s tendency to glorify success and perfection can contribute to apprehension about failure. The world, viewed through the lens of news and social media, appears to be dominated by individuals experiencing lives defined by an upwards trajectory of success and popularity. As the public, we usually only learn about these people, their projects and their families once they have made it big. We admire their success, yet rarely witness the failures or struggle that preceded it, or the darkness in the midst of it. This perspective of success is deceiving, as the stories of highly successful individuals are often peppered with adversity and failure. When we are not exposed to these setbacks, we tend to to compare ourselves and our lives to their highlight reel of achievements. This in turn can make it hard for us to validate the mistakes we make and problems we experience. We may second-guess ourselves and question our abilities when we experience a setback; not realizing that adversity is common, and often a prerequisite for success. These misconceptions of success and failure, and our brain’s tendency to trigger anxiety and fear when we are under pressure, can lead us to shy away from challenges, and to feel overwhelmed and give up prematurely when we encounter a setback.
However, when we broaden our lens, we get encounter refreshing glimpses of the reality of realizing a dream. Award-winning author J.K Rowling, who experienced significant setbacks and failures in the pursuit of her goals, famously said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” When Edison struggled to perfect the design of the lightbulb, he said defiantly, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” These attitudes represent a perspective on success that is far from the perfection we often aspire to. How would we live our lives differently, if we viewed our setbacks this way; as an inevitable part of pursuing our dreams? Would we dream bigger, and pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off more quickly if we fell? Would we take more risks and spare ourselves the condemnation if we failed? Would we hold onto our dreams more loosely, with knowledge that if things didn’t go as planned, there was always hope and new opportunities on the other side? What if we could help our children to see risk-taking and setbacks as integral to growth and success; rather than shameful moments to be buried and forgotten? When we can see past the distress of loss or failure, there is so much to learn, and even greater gains that can be made as a result of these experiences. Overcoming a setback provides an opportunity to lift, be courageous, increase our self-awareness and inspire those around us who are also facing hardship. The wisdom gained as we persevere through setbacks, while not as seductive as success, can lead us to hone our goals and skills more sharply, amplify our sense of gratitude, improve decision-making and encourage significant personal growth and resilience in an individual. This wisdom is also a precious currency that can be leveraged for the greater good; for the people around us and our community who are chasing their own dreams.
When we adopt this attitude, failure, or success, is no longer seen as the end, or the climax of the story, and more as a plot development. We are so much more than just the sum of our successes and failures. Setbacks are nothing to be ashamed of; our dreams and projects, our failures and successes, are part of the greater story of our life; a rich narrative of hope, purpose, courage and growth. Propagating this healthy mindset starts with sharing life stories that are honest and authentic; timelines of darkness and heartbreak, honest accounts of the highs and lows of taking chances and following dreams and the priceless moments of redemption, growth, and renewed purpose that follow. These stories inspire us and the people around us to take risks, and persevere when things get tough, knowing that there is always new hope and purpose around the corner. From a practical perspective, if you have encountered a setback or the loss of a dream, acknowledge and accept your feelings, keep track of the lessons learnt, share your struggles with others you trust, and find inspiration and support from the people in your world who have taken risks, succeeded, and fallen before you. And take courage; another dream may be just on the horizon.