Failing Forward

How to Turn Failure into a Learning Experience

When I was a teenager, our school participated in the presidential fitness test program. We did sit-ups and pull-ups, ran the fifty-yard dash, stretched our fingers past our toes, and accomplished a whole list of other exercises.

The long jump, however, is the event that will be forever impressed on my memory. The first time I jumped, I actually fell backward—one inch. I tried again, and again I fell. But this time I fell forward, and the lady measured the jump from where my feet were—zero inches!

I may not have been a star jumper, but I sure would rather fall forward than to fall backward.

In our Christian walk, we each fall. I wish we didn’t. I wish I could give you a lesson on how to never fail. That would, however, present some challenges, the first being that I’m not in the least qualified to write it. The second challenge is that no one else is, either.

But, since we all fail (repeatedly), wouldn’t it be great if each time, we could fall forward—learning from our mistakes and gaining ground even by failure? Believe it or not, there is a way to fail successfully.

Here are a few ways you can make failure a learning experience:

Learn to Ask the Right Question

One of the greatest assets to learning is a wisely-worded question. Too often, we ask ourselves the wrong questions when we fail, and in so doing, we are distracted from discovering the correct answers.

Our typical question is, “Why did I do that?” But this question (and the self-condemnation with which we ask it) rarely leads us to a profitable conclusion. What if instead we asked, “What lessons can I learn from this failure?” The very nature of this question leads to growth, rather than to continuing defeat.

Change Your Expectations

Why is it that when we fail once, we automatically assume we will fail again?

We must choose a different line of thinking. Most of us naturally default to an assumption such as “I’m a failure, and I’ll never be good at anything.” This, however, is pure assumption. The problem is that we usually get what we expect.

When I enrolled as a freshman in college, I was discouraged to learn that Speech 101 was a required class for every major. Right from the start, I knew I couldn’t give a speech—and my negative attitude soon validated itself. When my turn came to give my speech in class, I got no further than my first line before I sat down in defeat. Over and over I had told myself, “I can’t do this.” I convinced myself so thoroughly that I really couldn’t do it.

Sooner or later, we’re going to get what we expect. If you assume you will fail, you will. But if you expect to succeed, you will have the freedom to learn from your failure and use it as an asset on the road to success.

Adjust Your Vocabulary

One of the saddest phrases in our language is if only. After Peter failed his Lord, he could have repeated this phrase to himself a thousand times, “If only I hadn’t denied Christ…If only I hadn’t followed afar off…If only I hadn’t cursed the Lord….”

Perhaps you’ve repeated a similar phrase. “If only I hadn’t said that.” “If only I wouldn’t have lost my temper.” “If only I had kept my promise.”

How do you think it would impact our future success if we replaced the words “if only” with the phrase “next time I will”? “Next time my preschooler soaks the dishcloth in the toilet, I’ll lovingly train him, rather than lose my temper.” “Next time my teenager is frustrated with his homework, I’ll listen.”

Dwelling on “if only” subverts your attention from the present, causing you to miss today’s opportunities for success. “Next time I will” positions you for growth.

Appreciate the Value of Failure

Failure may be costly, but it is also precious when it drives us to the Lord. Some failures, such as Peter’s, are the result of sin. When this is the case, thank the Lord for intervening in your life through allowing you to feel the consequences of your sin and thus bringing you back to Himself. Truly, it is far better to fail by sinning and then return to the Lord than to succeed in wrongdoing and spend a longer time away from Christ.

Some failures are simply the result of poor judgment, undeveloped skills, or undeveloped methods. In these cases, remember that each failure brings you that much closer to success.

This article is an excerpt from The Choice Is Yours by Terrie Chappell.

If this article was a help to you, consider sharing it with your friends.