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Mistakes Versus Failure

mistake versus failure

❝Don't fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today.❞ -unknown

I'm standing up with a little help from my mom, whose hands are underneath my arms. It's 1980, and I'm about to take my first step. I reach my right foot out and put my weight on it. Everybody goes crazy with cheers! I've hit the milestone; I've taken my first step! I’m feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, things don't go so well on my next step. With my weight on my right foot, I reach out to put my left foot down and fall right on my face. I start crying as my mom tries to comfort me. Not only does it hurt falling on my face, but I get embarrassed because I can't walk. Everybody around me walks. I start to think there is something wrong with me.

I keep trying. Eventually, I'm able to walk two steps, then five steps, but most of the time, I have to hold onto a coffee table or a couch to keep my balance. Everybody seems to cheer, but I know that they're judging me for not being able to do what they've been able to do for decades.

It's frustrating. I don't like failing. I get the sense that this walking thing just isn't for me. I tell myself it's time to throw in the towel.

Fortunately, I have a very supportive mom who convinces me to keep at it. She tells me I didn't fail at walking; I just simply made some mistakes. These mistakes are necessary for me to learn what works and what doesn't work. I eventually go on to walk like an adult, and I even learn to run.

I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that making a mistake is not the same thing as failing. It would have been a failure to give up on walking because I couldn't figure it out right away. Mistakes, on the other hand, helped me learn how to walk.

(I hope this goes without saying, but I do not remember 1980 nor taking my first steps.)

making mistakes and trying again


Many people fear failure in large part because they confuse making a mistake and failing. Making a mistake is normal and part of the learning process. It's only a failure if you don't try. Nonetheless, the fear of failing and the fear of making a mistake prevent people from trying anything new. It seems many people have an unhealthy relationship with embarrassment.

fear of failure


Embarrassment is short-term. Taking risks and having them pay off is a long-term play. Those who are more willing to put themselves into potentially embarrassing situations are more likely to take risks. Those that are more likely to take risks are more likely to find opportunities.

Author and Dilbert creator Scott Adams has written that his friend in middle school would just walk up to girls and talk to them. Most of the time, the girls did not want to talk to him. Adams thought that would be the most embarrassing thing he could think of. Perhaps it was, but that's the short-term thinking talking. What his friend was actually doing was learning ways of communicating that didn't work and ways that worked; he was learning how to deal with rejection, and found more people who were willing to have conversations with him. The skills he acquired are the long game. It happened because he was willing to put himself into short-term, potentially embarrassing situations, which over time, were not even embarrassing anymore.

embarrassment and risks


Making mistakes has the potential to induce embarrassment. We are often quick to tell ourselves a story about what other people are thinking about us. One thing that many of us forget is that mistakes are information. They are information about something that didn't work. It's information that tells us a new thing to try. In order to learn lessons, you have to make mistakes.

turn mistakes into lessons


If you find yourself nervous or even afraid to try new things because you feel embarrassed, it might be worth it to try keeping an embarrassment log. Mr. Adams suggests writing down all those times you felt embarrassed. What you'll find when you go revisit those older entries is that you've completely forgotten about them. You get to learn that the world didn't end, you're still here and healthy, and time keeps marching on. Additionally, write down times when you see other people do something you consider embarrassing. Notice how little you actually care. Over time you'll learn that how you feel about other people's potentially embarrassing situations is the same way they feel about yours; they don't care. Over time, you may experiment with going out of your way to put yourself into potentially embarrassing situations to improve your relationship with embarrassment.

This is powerful. Once you get over your fear of embarrassment, you will open yourselves up to new opportunities because you will be willing to take more risks.

embarrassment log


Getting comfortable with being embarrassed keeps you from failing. In other words, it keeps you from avoiding new things. By trying new things, you learn that risk-taking leads to potential opportunities. You might even analyze the pros and cons. The pros of taking risks are that you'll find new opportunities, and those risks may pay off. The cons of taking risks will help you determine if the upside is worth it. If the only con of taking the risk is that it's potentially embarrassing, then you're more likely to take those risks and more likely to seek out and discover new opportunities.

risks and opportunities

There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. In fact, making mistakes is the only way to learn new things. Ask yourself if you're afraid of failure or if you're, in fact, afraid to make a mistake. You can train yourself to be less afraid to make mistakes by putting those mistakes in context. Understanding that potentially embarrassing situations are only short-run in nature and lead to long-term lessons will help you find and cultivate new opportunities.

You only have one life; live intentionally.

With gratitude,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Adams, Scott: Loserthink

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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