Last week I talked about the importance of taking sets to failure at the gym, namely that, when done correctly, it’s an excellent way to build muscle and strength. This just goes to show that the word “failure” isn’t always negative, and that goes for failure outside the gym as well.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, seven-time Mr. Olympia winner, said this:
“The last 3 or 4 reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack: having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain, no matter what happens.”
Now, he is obviously talking about bodybuilding, but I can’t help but think that those words hold wisdom for our spiritual journey just as much as our fitness one. It is often, if not always, the most painful experiences that precipitate breakthroughs and carve the paths to triumph. It’s only after we’ve reached down deep inside ourselves, seeking the strength we’re not sure we had, and fought with our every fiber that the sweetest victories are won.
Persevering isn’t easy to do. Like repetitions done to failure in the gym, it hurts. It burns. It challenges not only our muscles, but our minds, too. Our fear of pain works against our better judgment, urging us to call it quits and restore life’s homeostasis. Failure is a word we’ve been conditioned to run from and avoid at all costs, which is terribly unfortunate, for failures are among life’s greatest teachers.
Consider some of history’s most successful innovators and inventers. People like Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Walt Disney, and Albert Einstein. The latter’s parents thought he was mentally retarded. His grades were so poor that a teacher once told him he’d never amount to anything! Today, the world reveres him as a brilliant theoretical physicist and one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.
Michael Jordan, one of the best – if not the best – basketball players ever, was cut from his high school team because of a “lack of skill.” He’s said:
“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Did you see what he said? He’s succeeded because he failed first – multiple times. He chose not to let one person’s opinion of him or his talent crush his dreams. As with all noteworthy failures of history, Jordan didn’t let his shortcomings or slip-ups slow him down. He learned from them, proactively looking for constructive takeaways that would prove advantageous during future “impossible” situations and times of testing.
I wonder how many other potential Thomas Edisons there were before Edison ever invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. Like Einstein, he had a less-than-encouraging teacher who told him he was too stupid to learn anything. As an adult, he attempted more than 9,000 experiments before creating a light bulb successfully. Odds are there were plenty of other bright, ambitious young men just as capable of making technological-breakthrough history, but when the going got tough, they panicked. They surrendered to the looming shadow of failure.
All of us are susceptible to what I’m calling failureophobia. From wanting to quit the drama program in high school because of my shyness, to nearly bailing on book projects halfway through, I’ve faced failure’s precipice countless times in my life. I’ve neared the edge of my comfort zone and gotten that uneasy feeling in my stomach, the one that tells me there are uncharted waters ahead and it might be best to swim back to shore.
As much as I’ve fought to suppress it, the feeling still surfaces. It lets me know I’m stretching, that I’m onto something good.
That fear of failure is a trap. It’s toxic. Too many of us are under the impression that failure, that making mistakes and possibly embarrassing ourselves, is fatal. It isn’t! In fact, the opposite is true: failure is vital. It’s what strengthens us by breaking us down and forcing weak muscles – be they spiritual, emotional, physical or mental – to grow. It’s what prepares us, pushes us, and propels us farther than we ever could have gone on a smooth, sunny, obstacle-free path.
As writer and speaker John Maxwell succinctly puts it, “To achieve any worthy goal, you must take risks.” We must come to accept that risk taking often also involves failure, and that’s okay. Incredible failures can lead to incredible successes.
Whatever the goal is that God has placed inside you, don’t let the fear of failure stop you from going after it.
Try new things.
Tell failure you’re not afraid of it. Ask the Lord to teach you through your mistakes so that you walk away from them stronger, wiser, and more passionate than ever before.