What Failure Feels Like


People who say there is no such thing as failure have either never truly failed at anything or had to declare bankruptcy. Failure is not a blessing in disguise, a shut door that simultaneously swings open a new one to a superior realm of reward — if only I had failed sooner! you would think. New age pseudo philosophers urge us to see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. It is, and losing your fingers is an opportunity to learn to eat a new way. That makes it no less devastating.

Failure is something real — it is a brutal end signifying the collapse of hopes and dreams. It is a torrent of shame, the knots in your stomach, insomnia and depression. To deny that failure exists is like refusing to admit defeat after a walloping on the football field.

When you’re young, the only failure you face is within the confines of school. At this age, failure has limited consequences. There’s potential embarrassment, punishment from your parents and possibly some sort of suspension. But it is highly doubtful that your life will change because of an “F” on the calculus final.

When I was in school, the only students who failed were the ones who were aggressively apathetic about studying. They seemed to take a sense of pride in their failing; it was a statement of their disinterest and disregard for the system. But if you had a modicum of intelligence and motivation, it was nearly impossible to fail.

Real life is not like that. Fierce competition means that intelligent and creative people fail frequently. Businesses close, artists throw away their paintbrushes and get jobs selling insurance, aspiring actors become career waiters (or Lindsay Lohan).

Failing in life is painful with real ramifications. When you’ve applied yourself and pursued a passion that did not work out, it’s soul-crushing. It’s the stuff that suicide is made of. You feel a sense of futility about life, a destabilizing loss of direction and diminished self-worth.

It could be a failed marriage, a failed project, or in my case, a failed business. Two years ago, I started a clothing business. It brought me to the highest peaks of happiness I’ve known, and in recent months, to the lowest depths of sorrow and anxiety. The business was an extension of myself. Every step forward was a cause to rejoice, each setback was a personal heartbreak that kept me awake at night and my Klonopin prescription on permanent refill.

It brings up existential questions — who am I without my business? What is the purpose of life? Do I want to work just to pay for groceries and have an iPhone? The answer is no. I am not so interested in life to compromise on how I’ve chosen to live.

But then the question becomes what will make life worth living? One day I think maybe I should go back to school and apply to work at the state department. Another day I think I’m supposed to write a book. The next day I will have a new business idea and spend all day working on it. But then the memory of my recent failure rears its head and I become paralyzed once again.

The natural instinct is to run away. A couple weeks ago, I began telling people that I was moving to India. I wanted a distraction from everything I had been dealing with for the past six months. I could lose myself in India’s madness, the frenetic foreignness of the culture and start anew.

Failure is painful and it rarely happens all at once, but is a slow agonizing process like dying on life support. You continue to hold out hope, and think that some miracle will occur but time wears on and things only get worse. At some point, all vital signs disappear you have to make the excruciating decision to pull the plug.

At that point, you must reinvent yourself, a process that does not happen overnight. You need to let go of the attachments, the guilt, the dream to which you held so tightly. This is a time of grieving, of despair over what you could have done differently, what you wish you could change.

You will feel isolated from those around you, not wanting to burden them with your unhappiness or risk judgment about your failure while you’re already insecure and hurt. You turn inwards and distance yourself from anyone who believed in you — because letting them down is more painful than letting yourself down.

The sense of naive certainty you once felt about success will never return. You know better now that a “sure thing” doesn’t exist. That brash optimism will not automatically translate to a happily ever after.

Learn from the failure, whether it’s practical knowledge or some profound wisdom from the experience. Thomas Edison was asked if he felt like a failure after 9,000 experiments to create the light bulb. He replied, “Why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”

While life seems hopeless, you will find another passion, another reason to be excited. Life is about experiences, some good, many bad. Experience them all equally and have faith that failure is one step closer to success.

featured image – Nathan O’Nions