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The Possibility of Failure

Updated: Aug 4, 2018

Sometimes failure is the path to something great!

 John Kelly was 2017's only official finisher of the Barkley Marathons and the 15th person ever to finish the race. I came across his blog ( Random Forest Runner.)  He was asked to speak at his high school’s commencement and he chose to talk about the idea of “failing with purpose”.  You should read the post I linked above because it’s fantastic, but in short he talked about setting reach goals that are aggressive and that give you a high likelihood of – but don’t guarantee – failure. He asserts, and I whole-heartedly agree:

“The failures where you reached just a bit too far, though, the ones where you set a stretch goal and came up short, those are the ones I want to talk about. Those are the ones that help you discover what you’re capable of, push your limits, and ultimately lead you to successes you may have never thought possible…

I had plenty of failures along the way, though, and I consider those an irreplaceable part of my success. These failures occurred from me trying to push myself too far, from choosing to put myself in situations where failure was not just possible, but highly likely. laz likes to say that you can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure. Well, I’d like to take that one step further and say that oftentimes accomplishing something great has failure along the shortest route.”  – John Kelly

In the cognitive science literature, this idea is referred to as “desirable difficulty“. People make the biggest gains in learning and performance when they are doing something difficult that is just at the edge of their understanding and competence. Often this means a lot of the learning comes from failures along the way.

It’s easy to get out of practice of putting yourself out there with the possibility of failure – whether it be in running or other aspects of life.  It takes so much emotional and mental energy to want something badly and to be willing to stare down failure. But, I think this is what makes things exciting. Getting a chance to ask and answer the question “What are my limits?” is such an exciting opportunity!

may my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living whatever they sing is better than to know and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully and love yourself so more than truly there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail pulling all the sky over him with one smile

— e.e. cummings


If you can keep your head when all about you   

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,   

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,   

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,   

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster   

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken   

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,   

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings    

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 

And lose, and start again at your beginnings    

And never breathe a word about your loss; 

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew    

To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you    

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,   

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute   

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

–Rudyard Kipling

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