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How Important Is It to Have Failed at Something in Life?

According to a psychologist, a boxing coach, a urologist, and a Mars simulation commander

Most of us spend our entire lives trying to avoid mucking up. But unless you’ve never had any dreams or goals or really any sort of ambitions at all, chances are you’ve failed at something at least once in your life. And it’s also just as likely that your “failure” laid the foundation for your subsequent or ultimate success.

By nearly every measure, in fact, failure is a learning experience and a stepping stone toward growth. It’s why NASA astronaut Charles Camarda believes that the tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle — which broke apart above Texas in February 2003 — has provided both current and future engineers with a motto to live by: “Where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn’t come with success,” reported Anna Haislip for Colorado Daily.

To find out just how vital failure is in the context of succeeding in life, I asked a bunch of people who know its importance intimately.

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William Trillo, boxing coach: I speak to fighters often about failure. In a sport that’s all about, “What have you done for me lately?” boxers think a loss is a death sentence. But a loss can be more beneficial than just taking a bunch of easy fights.

The problem is that everyone in this day and age is so fixated on that zero. Floyd Mayweather has lived or died with that zero. He says he’s the best ever, but to keep that zero, he’s taken on less than the best talent out there. He’s shied away from putting that zero on the line. Maybe had he lost once, he might be more willing to embrace other fights because that mark of perfection will be gone. But because he’s so protective of that goose egg, he hasn’t always taken the best fights being offered.

Once you get out of a guys head that a loss isn’t a death sentence and it can help further his career, the ones who embrace that go on to have a better career. It’s a sense of relief because they’re not as afraid of the loss and they’re willing to do more than they would otherwise. They’re going to be more aware not to let that happen again. There’s greater clarity in their self-reflection. In the end, they got the loss, they took it like a man, they’re still here and they’re ready to fight on. The loss didn’t destroy them.

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Carmel Johnston, Mars simulation commander: I feel like everything is a lesson one way or another, so failure really isn’t possible. There were many times that we tried something that didn’t work as planned, but that doesn’t mean it was a failure. So whether you get what you expected or something different, you can always learn something from the outcome.

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Jamin Brahmbhatt, board-certified urologist: I hate to use the word failure, because when you have something unexpected happen, even if it’s something we know can happen, it’s tough. In this case, it could be a reversal vasectomy that didn’t work. Or the reversal worked, but the couple is still unable to get pregnant. Or you get surgery to remove the prostate cancer but now you have erectile dysfunction. Basically, even though you may go through all this stuff and you know it’s a possibility, the only way to deal with these unexpected results is to have that open line of communication.

Patients and their families are very receptive that we’re being real with them. You learn from these experiences that the best medicine is honest medicine. Most of us in medicine are very honest with overall expectations — we know based on research that nothing is 100 percent. That’s why we spend most of the time discussing unexpected outcomes as well as risks and side effects.

Failures are only failures when you don’t learn from that experience. Medicine is an art, not a hard-and-fast science, so experience plays a role. The other thing is, we’re dealing with human life. Someone’s body, their mother, father, wife, husband — that’s where the big emotional factor comes in. That’s why we can take unexpected results very hard. It’s mentally straining because we’re dealing with human life, which is irreplaceable.

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Amy Kim, clinical psychologist: A lot of people define failures that aren’t really failures. I’m hesitant to call anything a failure because everything is an opportunity to learn and grow. For example, a relationship that doesn’t work out isn’t a failure. Two people got together, they tried to make it work and it didn’t work out. That’s not a failure.

Still, I do think that having that experience — which some may categorize as a failure — allows you to take what you’ve learned and move forward. Let’s say you didn’t know you could trust someone, but after your last relationship, now at least you know that’s possible. Having an experience about really feeling connected and understood means that’s possible in the future based on direct experience.

Not doing things out fear will keep you limited. People who are afraid of making decisions out fear of failure will be paralyzed, which is why failure — and again, I hate to call it that! — is necessary for growth. Challenges push you to grow, they teach you new things about yourself and they make your life richer. A life without failures means you’re not doing a whole lot.