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What Failure Taught Me About Creativity

What do Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, and Oprah Winfrey all have in common? Before their success, fame and notoriety, each one of these beloved American figures where big, fat FAILURES. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Ouch. Abraham Lincoln had three failed businesses and lost seven political races before becoming president of the United States. The guy just didn’t know when to quit. Oprah was demoted from her job as a news anchor because she “wasn’t fit for television.” Um, okay. As fascinating as overnight success stories are, they are usually not based in reality. After pulling back the curtains of their success, we see the long, sometimes arduous, process to achieve their goals and dreams.

Most of us have a huge aversion to failure in our own life, which counterproductively keeps us from the things we want to achieve.

We want great things, but often we choose a path that is as risk free – and therefore failure free, we reason. Why is it we do this? At its core, the process of trial and error, failure and success, is deeply vulnerable. (That’s right, I said the 'V word'.) This is why we need creativity and connection to our deepest self to solve these problems. Our head just won’t cut it. It also means that we have to reframe the way we look at failure and consider its place in our lives. If we let it, failure can be a great friend and teacher.

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I believe that failure teaches us two things:

1. Failure clarifies our values and reveals what’s truly important.

If we could be good at everything, how would we ever know what we should be good at or what contribution we’re here to make? Failure helps to refine the “why” and “what” of our purpose. I’ll give you an example.

When I was growing up in my small town high school, I was one of the best singers in the school. If a solo came up to audition for, I often got it because I was the best amongst my peers. This was NOT the case when I went off to college! That gave me a lot of clarity, especially since initially I had considered music as a possible career path.

However, this “failure” in my singing career helped to clarify other things that I was good at. I wouldn’t have discovered the raw (very raw at that time) talent I had in mobilizing people and drawing out their strengths and gifts because it wasn’t even on my radar. But because of how failure redefined my path, I learned something about myself I may not have learned otherwise.

2. Failure is the pathway to creativity.

When we attempt something we care about deeply and fail, the strength of our love and conviction can be tested. It clarifies what we truly want and where we need to grow so we can continue developing those strengths. If we’ve determined that something’s important to us – and we’re still facing failure despite our best efforts in pursing it – this is where we are challenged to see if how we’re pursuing our goals is truly working or if we need a new approach.

Another illustration from my life: Last year, I was facing barriers in my business and was feeling discouraged that I wasn’t achieving the impact that I wanted. I wrote this in my journal at that time:

I finally see the value in pain and struggle. Certainly in my personal life I’ve seen growth through these things. But I’m starting to see it in my business as well.

What if I had instant coaching success? My calendar would be filled with clients. I would not be forced into introspection or creativity. I would not be able to build what I want because I wouldn’t have discovered what I really wanted.

I am beginning to see a beautiful pattern. I try something, put myself out there. I “fail.” I get discouraged and maybe a little depressed. I cope, disengage, watch a lot of Netflix and complain to my friends.

Then there is something that rises up in me. One Last Push. This time something breaks open just enough for me to get off my butt and run toward my dreams.

There’s a purpose to the lull. I have stopped feeling guilty about it and beating myself up for being “lazy.” It makes my brain take a back seat and gives my heart the opportunity to step up and get into the game.

Creativity is the key to success and this comes from the heart.

Failure guided me to creativity, and creativity is a really good giver.

You see, success is the kind of gift giver that picks up something generic for you at the airport gift shop. It's not always needed , but who are we to refuse? Creativity is the kind of giver that painstakingly studies your deepest-held values in order to give you a gift that you will cherish forever.

Take Action

Here is my challenge to you, friend:

Take a moment to reflect on a past failure. What gift did it give you that you would truly miss if success had come easily? Share in the comments below.


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