What ‘Failing Forward’ Means and What to Make of It

    In work and in life, ‘failure’ and ‘mistakes’ are not synonymous.

    Right now, our culture wants to fail forward. Freakonomics did a podcast on how to succeed at failing. The New York Times recently wrote about failure as a precondition to thriving, suggesting that we can learn from our missteps if we put our failures in context, learn to pivot, and share our failures with others. Practices that can lead to future success are the appropriate counterparts to grit and resilience. Succeeding in the end certainly requires that we keep going and don’t give up on worthwhile ventures — that’s grit — but it also requires learning from our mistakes along the way so that our grit pays off.

    Maybe the focus on failing forward is the obvious response to the last few years. In any realm — public health, politics, religion, or social movements — all of us can look at the last four years and see terrible outcomes arising as a result of multiple bad decisions unfolding over time. And we want to avoid those outcomes next time. Or prevent the “next time” altogether.

    In all these conversations, “failure” seems to mean “mistakes” at a variety of corporate and individual levels. We learn something from our mistakes that we can’t learn from our successes, which is precisely why we should talk about them honestly and productively.

    While there are really helpful resources for learning from mistakes, it would be, well, a mistake to think that we can approach all failures as “mistakes” to learn from. Failures are sometimes more than a mere setback or more than a matter of wrong timing. The experts tell us that putting failure in context is helpful to keep a person from “blowing it out of proportion” — but what if the proportion really is that bad? What if putting things in context reveals just how badly we screwed up? Perhaps in Mauritania you can throw a divorce party to celebrate a “failed” marriage, but I’ve met few divorced couples who actually felt like the unraveling of their family was something worth celebrating. Nor have I met pastors who lost their ministries that celebrate their moral failings that led them to that place.

    As Christians, we are no strangers to failure. We understand we were born already dead in sin and that no amount of our own success could rescue us. No one has fallen forward more than a person who recognizes their need for a Savior and finds salvation at the cross of Jesus.

    So then, how can Christians think well about the concept of failing forward in our professional or personal lives? And does failing successfully present an opportunity for Christian witness?

    Just like confessing sin, failing forward should start with lament and end with us putting our failures in God’s hands.

    Short-Term and Long-Term Failure

    Failure is inevitable. In a world of scarcity and constraints, wisdom means we often have to choose between good, better, and best options — we must say no to good things. And the flip side is that wisdom often requires choosing the best among the bad, worse, and worst options. In such a world, we will choose bad options, with all that entails. The wisest among us must fail, even as we behave wisely. Failure, in some sense, is unavoidable when perfection is off the table.

    But not all failures are equal. We can miss a phone call that can easily be rescheduled. Or we can lose a client’s file and mess up a tenuous relationship. We can make a wrong choice for our children that is laughable, or one that is disastrous.

    It can be easy to fail forward when our failures are short-lived aberrations of how things typically go — or of what things have the potential to be. But sometimes struggles and failures constitute more than a temporary season; sometimes our failures constitute an era, or even the core of our experience. After all, we live the entirety of our earthly lives on this side of the Fall. The common adage “you’ll get through this” is not always true. In some cases, we need more than honesty and a strategy for success.

    A decade ago, at my annual checkup, for the first time the intake questionnaire was dominated by questions about mental health. Twice as many questions were about anxiety and depression than about all physical issues combined.

    I asked my physician about this, and his response surprised me: “We have tons of anxiety and depression here. You professors must be under a lot of stress. But not people your age — more people in their 50s.”

    I was surprised. Professors in their 50s have tenure and have had it for decades. They are at the top of their career. By most measures, they’ve succeeded. Work can always be stressful, but I’m not sure that stress alone is sufficient to cause anxiety and depression for people earning six figures with complete job security.

    Perhaps no amount of short- or long-term career or personal success can immunize us from the feelings of defeat. No amount of worldly success can give us a secure identity. No amount of worldly accomplishment can guarantee that all our achievements will not one day amount to a mountain of failure.

    Failure Needs More Than a Pivot or grit

    When failure is a moral lapse that does irreversible damage to you and those around you, when somebody else will never forgive you for your mistake, when health issues for a child or a spouse or a parent make it impossible for you to do your job, when your guilt plunges you into a season of mental health struggles — is it enough to learn from episodes like these and pivot toward success?

    As Christians, we believe in redemption. Peter’s threefold failure the night Jesus was betrayed “made him” a humble servant who was finally willing to follow Jesus everywhere. Paul’s murderous failures “made him” a humble apostle of grace. But we should not be too quick to short-circuit the tremendous pain and loss that failures like these can cause.

    After all, it was not the failures themselves that made these apostles great, nor was it their grit and resilience, but the one who transformed these men through those failures. We cannot fast-forward past the pain to redemption; the first “answer” to failure should not necessarily be to learn and to pivot.

    We Need to Lament

    The fact is, in this lifetime we are never going to accomplish everything we want or hope for. We aren’t going to work or perform at the level we want to. Things slip between our fingers and fall between the cracks. Not only is that worth mourning, but it ought to make us more sympathetic to the pain of those around us. Because this is a boat we are all in.

    We can lament that the world is not the way it ought to be because we know that one day it will be. As God’s redeemed people, we will have an eternity to worship God, love him, and love others in consummate perfection. The joy you seek in pivoting from failure toward success — that will be one of God’s gifts to you. The goodness of God’s plans for us is, in part, how we know that the world now is not what it should be.

    We Need a Redeemer

    Lament forces us to trust our failures to God. Only God can redeem what’s profoundly wrong in us and this world. And he does.

    Properly lamenting our failures can free us up to praise God for the identity we have in Christ. Like Peter and Paul, transformation will only come if we trust ourselves, in our failures, to the God who brings life out of death. Whatever God may accomplish through our failures, he nearly always uses sorrow and pain to draw us closer to him. In hard times, we are often reminded of our brokenness, and we rest in his grace and ask for his direction.

    As you lament and trust the process, remember where you are going. There will be a day when we are able to worship Jesus fully and more beautifully. On that day, we will see how God has redeemed our failures and given us a redeemed earth to work in. There are millions of glorious things we will get to do. Just you wait.

    This hope is the greatest type of witness we can give to others. Sure, if we “fail forward” in the worldly sense, and if we live beautiful, wise lives according to God’s commands, people will hopefully notice. And that’s a wonderful, biblical witness (Deut 4:6–10).

    But what happens when we don’t get the work done? When we don’t handle our emotions well? When we don’t face life with equilibrium and poise? When we don’t pivot and move toward success? This witness remains: In our weakness and desperation, we cling to Jesus. We have nothing more and we never did.

    The lesson for our friends and neighbors is not that we have the strength. The lesson is that the only way we can handle life is with God’s help. And we can show them that through both successes and failures.

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