Failure....What we should all be striving for

It sounds contradictory doesn’t it?  Failure, isn’t that the one thing that we are all seeking to avoid, to prevent at all costs?   For most of us this is true, and is a huge mistake! What we should be doing is seeking failure and embracing each time we reach this point because this is what allows us to be better!


         The word failure, itself, is a scary word. Associated with a lack of ability, a lack of effort, a lack of talent, or all of the above. Today I’m going to challenge your thoughts on failure, encourage you to stop thinking about it in such a negative way, and seek failure at every opportunity.


For example, if you set out to run a 10k and 5km in your body told you that enough was enough and you had to walk/jog the rest or if your goal was to do 10 chin-ups and you got to 6 before your arms gave out. In both of these situations you could consider yourself a failure, mope about it for a while before the discouragement prompted you to give up on your goals OR you could realize that you just pushed yourself to your absolute limit, failed, and are going to be better for it after some well deserved rest!


In both of these scenarios we reached failure, but only in one does our mindset celebrate this achievement and prepare to be better the next time. With this mindset we take the appropriate rest and refuel needed and come back stronger next time. Maybe we get to 5.5km running, maybe 6? Maybe we get 7 pull ups done before failure. The point is we are better than we were before because we failed before.



The same mindset can be applied in areas outside of sport.  Do you think that Mozart sat down and banged out a perfect “Concerto No. 21” on trial one?  


No way!


The way that he got better was by playing a bit, making a mistake (ie. failing), refocusing, learning from his mistake, and trying again, only to fail a million times over before producing an amazing piece of work.


Most people are familiar with the Michael Jordan quote -“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” He understood that failure was not something to be avoided and feared but something to strive for because that is how we improve.



The reason failure is what allows us to succeed isn’t unique to famous artists or professional athletes. It’s based on the science of how each and every one of our bodies function.  Warning: nerd alert! 


Billions of neurons enable our brain to fire and send signals to our muscles to move. These neurons are covered in a material called myelin to enable quick passage of signals from origin to destination.  Neuron pathways are myelnated according to the number of times that they are fired. An increase in myelination increases the rate that a neural pathway is able to fire and therefore the ease of a thought or action. For those who are more techy- think about the myelination of our neurons as increasing broadband. The more myelin, the faster the signal reaches its destination.

I could go on but Daniel Coyle does a much more in depth description in his book,  “The Talent Code”.  If you are interested in the subject of myelination and how failure helps us succeed I highly recommend you read this book.


In terms that are easier to wrap our head around, and how I usually encourage my patients and clients to push themselves to failure, I like to compare our body to a self-improving super computer.  While we rest, our body’s systems go into overdrive to see where improvements need to be made. They run a complete review of the day and identify tasks that were very easy, challenging but manageable, and ones where we failed and were not able to complete the activity.  It then assigns its resources to go make improvements to these areas as needed. Ever heard of the term “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Well, your body doesn’t have time or energy to waste on tasks that were really easy and probably won’t pay too much attention to areas that were challenging but possible, but it will focus a lot of energy on areas that failed! Why?  Because if we’ve tried it once, our bodies assume that we will probably try it again, and next time, next time we need to be better!


It is not my intention to have everyone who reads this rush out and begin pushing his or her bodies to the edge of death just to try and elicit an improvement. Failure doesn’t mean depleting your body’s resources to the point of hospitalization.  The definition that I use with patients and clients with regard to physical activity is “the maximum amount you can give with safe form”. To bring back our concert pianist, it would be the point where a wrong note is hit or tempo was lost.


I wanted to touch on the subject of failure because too often I see individuals doing everything they can to avoid failure. Too often I see athletes who are not comfortable being uncomfortable and reaching for crutches or making excuses to make things easier for them and so that they don’t have to deal with the failure of not making a pace time or not performing up to their preconceived standards. The best advice that I am able to offer anyone, athlete or not, if you are struggling to complete something and there is a risk of failure ahead, don’t turn and run away, turn and face it head on. And when you do finally reach that point of failure be proud about it, brag about it because, with some rest (and learning) you will be better next time.