What do Abraham Lincoln, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Colonel Sanders, Elvis Presley, Jack London, Fredrick Douglass, Winston Churchill, and William Wilberforce have in common?
They were all failures.
They all missed their goals and experienced tremendous setbacks. Multiple times. In some cases, for the majority of their lives. And yet, we remember them because of their achievements. We all know their names and much of their history, and the reason is simple: each refused to be defined by failure, but instead used it to propel them toward success and triumph.
Failure is inevitable. At some point in your life, you’ll fall short. We know this because we see it all around us. Politicians’ mistakes are splashed across newspapers, celebrities’ failures dominate the media, and our own errors are etched on the forefront of our minds. Though there’s no way to prevent failure, I believe one can succeed at failing and learn to move on in freedom with gospel hope. Because of Jesus, and what he did on the cross, we know our failures aren’t the end of the story.
Because of Jesus, and what he did on the cross, we know our failures aren’t the end of the story.
Young people, this is especially important for you. College provides four years to learn how to work through mistakes and benefit from them. In my own life, I’ve seen how three principles help us succeed when we fail.
1. Fail in the Place You’ll Eventually Succeed
You need to be willing to fail at something you’re deeply invested in, and then to stay invested. This is how you grow. If you’re an incredible ballet dancer, but suddenly decide to try your hand at lacrosse, your failure might not come as a surprise or have a big effect. Yet if you’re an aspiring company dancer in the New York City ballet and you fail your tryouts, this is a major opportunity for growth.
During the financial crisis in 2008, Jamie Dimon was dubbed as Wall Street’s “Banker of Last Resort”—the most powerful banker in the world. However, Dimon wasn’t always regarded in such a positive light. Ten years earlier, he was fired from Citi after being named the president of Citigroup, a spectacular and public fall from the pinnacle of his profession. But he stayed the course and climbed back to the top, eventually becoming the chairman and CEO of J. P. Morgan Chase, his current role. If Dimon had abandoned the field of banking and moved on to something else, he never would’ve been able to ascend to his present lofty role.
Push yourself to excellence in the field you’re passionate about, because that’s where failure becomes a defining moment and a turning point that can propel you further in that field. Don’t shy away from the prospect of failure in your area of passion; actively seek it. We summit new peaks when we climb further than we believe we are able.
2. Fail Around People Who Will Catch You
Failing alone is miserable. It’s important to have a group of confidants supporting you, reminding you that failure isn’t final. Whether it comes from your family, youth group, friends at church, or colleagues, we all need people who can catch us before we hit rock bottom.
Failing alone is miserable.
As an undergraduate, I was nominated for a major campus honor but ended up being rejected by the selection committee. I thought my nomination was a slam dunk, and it was humiliating when acquaintances—assuming I’d been selected—mistakenly congratulated me on being chosen. I later learned a friend I’d worked with on a big campus project had spoken against my nomination. I felt betrayed.
When I learned of my rejection, I stopped by my mentor’s office for a word of encouragement. I’ll never forget her response: “Michael,” she said, “what others meant for evil, God meant for good.” She then urged me to pray that God would give me an idea of something I could do during my senior year now that I had extra time on my hands. In the end, some friends and I started an initiative to honor faculty and staff at a special banquet; last spring, I was invited to return to campus to speak at that event, which has run continuously since we launched it more than 20 years ago. I doubt I would’ve pursued this new venture if I’d been selected for the original program. In the context of a supportive Christian community, a mentor was able to help me make the most of a failure. In the end, it produced good not only in my own life but also in the lives of others.
Friends do that for you. They give you the perspective you need when you’re drowning in hopelessness. So think deeply about where you go to college and whom you surround yourself with as you move to a new city. Your community matters.
3. Fail Knowing It Doesn’t Define You
It’s human nature to dwell on our missteps and wonder what others think. We gravitate toward insecurity, believing everyone knows about our failure. But more often than not, only a few people—if any—notice.
If you let the failure get you down and you stay in that pit, you rob yourself of potential growth. Your past isn’t your future. It doesn’t define who you are or what the rest of your life will look like. What matters is what you do after you fail and how you move on.
Your past isn’t your future. It doesn’t define who you are or what the rest of your life will look like.
Your environment during these momentous times is crucial in helping you remember this point. Some schools are so competitive that it’s difficult to get the encouragement you need. It doesn’t matter that you fought off thousands of students to get accepted; once you’re in, you now have to compete against your classmates. There’s no team spirit or culture of encouragement. It’s all about you and your individual success. Not every place is like this, though, so choose your community wisely.
Gospel for Failures
The gospel of Jesus Christ refuses to allow us to be defined by what we can’t do. We’re free in Christ, knowing that though we fail, he still chose us and paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. At the Christian college where I serve, we strive to keep this vision at our institution’s core, reminding students, faculty, and staff that we’re free in Christ. We seek to love others well and encourage peers in times of failure and disappointment; in doing so, we become agents of reconciliation. I pray everyone finds a similar ecosystem of godly support.
Context matters. You’ll be shaped by those around you. So choose to be influenced in an environment where the gospel matters. And as Christians, remember that we’re called to remind each other that our failures do not define us.
And when you do fail at something, take heart; you’re not alone. Others in higher positions, who have succeeded, have also failed spectacularly. So try something new. Don’t be afraid or defined by that moment. Surround yourself with friends and family who support you. Be in Scripture and prayer. In the providence of God, there is a purpose in failing.