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  • James Gilreath

Failing is Not Failure


Failure, that is a crippling word. It is, as if, that word alone evokes every emotion and anxiety in our past, present, and future. And because of its crippling nature, people tend to avoid facing their failures instead of choosing to learn and grow. I would argue the root issue for this aversion lies in the fact that most people have never addressed their perspective on the meaning of failure.

Failure is derived from the Latin word fallere, meaning to fall short. We can all easily agree that we have all fallen short on several occasions in our lifetimes. So if we can all agree, then what is the big deal behind the word failure? Well, the big deal is that many of us move towards identifying ourselves as failures instead of analyzing the mishap and learning where we can make the corrections or improve our actions. An even bigger problem is that this response is so ingrained in many of us and the conversation that goes on in our heads to trigger this sort of response is so swift and confounded that our outlooks become bleak.

“Failure has been transformed from an action…to an identity…” – Amy Waldman, New York Times, 1999

This language of failure tends to be highly emotional and irrational. We often get an intuitive sense that we have failed after an event occurs. After a recent stress fracture injury that served as a setback to my track and field racing season, I actually said the words “I feel like a failure”. But how rational is that statement? Stress fractures are generally the type of injury that will occur regardless of preventive measures taken. So, if there was no direct way for me to take responsibility for this injury, then there is no way for me to rationally declare myself or the injury as a failure. In analyzing our responses to disappointing moments like injuries, we can more clearly see how our mindsets contribute to our reactions.

In some strange, emotional, and incoherent way, I initially allowed this injury to classify my talent as an athlete as inadequate. This sort of mindset is analogous to the fixed mindset. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck explains the fixed mindset: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” Alternatively, Dweck states that the growth mindset is preferable: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

So, I may not be responsible for the stress fracture, but I am responsible for my response to the stress fracture. This injury has affected the course of my season since I am unable to do weight-bearing exercise for the 6-8 weeks. I am sidelined, but this injury can only reflect my talent inasmuch as I allow it to have that power. I don’t have to allow this injury to keep me frozen in self-pity and actionless in a state of failure (fixed mindset); time continues on, and I can continue on and adjust appropriately. In keeping with the spirit of the growth mindset, I can look at my injury as fate giving me an opportunity to learn and grow my desire, tenacity, and perseverance towards achieving my Olympic goals in spite of a setback.

“I know that what looked to be a failure was nothing more than a kindly, unseen hand, that halted me in my chosen course and with great wisdom forced me to redirect my efforts along more advantageous pathways.” – Napoleon Hill, The Law of Success

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