What is failure?

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.’ – Michael Jordan

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits, who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.’ – Theodore Roosevelt

It is impossible to live without failure, unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.’ – J.K. Rowling

This is a question I’ve contemplated with some degree of frequency for the past two years, since originally committing to cycle to Australia. You’ll rarely hear me admit this, and it’s best I believe fully in my ability to succeed, but… this is a challenge in which the odds against actually making it to Australia are pretty high: there is a (good?) chance I won’t make it all the way there (although you have to keep up the attitude that of course you will!). But my question is whether that would mean I had failed? And if that is the case, is such a failure, anything to be ashamed, or even disheartened of?

I remember shortly after deciding to embark on this adventure, reading one of Alastair Humphreys’ books, in which he reports that he took on a challenge so big, something so monstrous, and seemingly impossible, that he was certain he would fail. Why? He believed that by selecting such a grand target, he’d achieve more than if he tasked himself with something in which success was guaranteed. To give an example: is it preferable to commit to cycling to Turkey, and comfortably make it, or to fail to cycle to Australia, instead, only making it to China? Which would you prefer? I know where I stand.

It seems logical that it’s the more ambitious, the big-dreamers, the ones who seek to bite off the most and who plough on, naïvely dismissing the naysayers and just confronting the impossible, who, ultimately, fail the most… What seems even more logical to me, however, is that such people are also the ones who achieve the most. Surely this is a sign failure is not something to be afraid of, and certainly not something to prevent us from even starting. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb made 1,000 mistakes before he was eventually successful. His outlook on failure is interesting – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Besides, reaching Australia is merely subsidiary to two of my biggest targets; having an adventure, and seeing more of the world. Australia is a destination, chosen at random, with little thought other than “that’s a long way away, and somewhere I’d like to go”. The success of this cycle lies less in actually making it to the destination, and more in having an interesting, experience-filled journey along the way. There’s a handful of quotes, full of clichés which I could utilise to emphasise this point, but I don’t think that’s necessary; Adventure is what I’m pursuing and I’m sure I’ll find that all along my route, long before actually reaching Australia.

I don’t feel like I’ve actually answered the question posited in the title of this post; instead I’ve merely demonstrated what failure is not. To me, failure lies in not pursuing your dreams, or not pushing yourself with everything you’ve got. In short, I believe I’d have failed more by never embarking on this cycle, than if I did my best, and only got to Point A. Failure would be quitting when the going got tough, and not persevering.

The answer to the question explored here has value in areas considerably more important than a mere bicycle ride, and I believe can be of use to everyone who may read this. If you’re at school, push yourself and strive for that A*, knowing you’ll achieve more than if you settle for the B, if you’re at work, aim for that sale or contract or agreement unafraid of failure, even though others doubt it as unlikely. If you’ve just started running, believe you can do a marathon. Whatever it is, push yourself and do not fear failure!

3 Replies to “What is failure?”

  1. […] need to have all the answers. Part of the excitement is that my success is not guaranteed… failure is a possibility… I am going into the unknown. The detachment which arises from making decisions behind a […]

  2. Jo, you are an inspiration, thank you for your great enthusiasm for life and for never being a cold, timid soul! Thank you for always being you and for daring greatly. I saw this quote and thought of you 🙂 x

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    ― Theodore Roosevelt

    1. Thanks! What an awesome quote! It’s encapsulates what I was trying to say in my article perfectly!

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