Failure is Okay

This article is the 10th of a 14-part series that explores the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly.

Yesterday, for the first time in my 40-1/2 years on this earth, I went ice skating. Initially, I was scared to try, but I eventually gave in to the taunts from my eight- and ten-year-old friends.

I love roller skating and I'm not too bad at it, but the ice skating…well, it sucked. It took me eight minutes to make it around the rink for the first time, clinging to the wall, my shins in pain. It took me five minutes to make it around a second time. Four minutes for round three.

My first half hour on the ice was an exercise in frustration. I couldn't make it more than a few feet without falling or lunging for the wall. Worst of all, I had to swallow my pride and accept advice from Tristan, Emma, and Harrison, my grade-school guides. (Emma, especially, was keen to skate around with me saying, “You're doing great, J.D.! Good, good.”)


This isn't me, but I'm very familiar with that pose…

 

By the end of afternoon, I could make it around the rink on my own. My steps were shaky and uncertain, but ultimately my personal best was 2-1/2 laps before falling or grabbing the wall. I'll never be an Elvis Stojko (nor even a Tonya Harding), but now I can say I've been ice skating. I could have let my early failures and frustrations get me down. I could have left the ice and said, “I'm not doing this anymore.” Instead, I stuck with it. I'm glad I did.

The ability to keep going in the face of failure is critical to success when learning to skate — and when learning to manage your money. Nobody's perfect. We all make mistakes with money every day. I've made tons in the past, and I continue to make them. Here are just a few examples:

 

    • I tried (and failed) to repay my debt several times before stumbling on the debt snowball method, which worked for me.

 

    • Before I embraced the idea of index funds, I repeatedly poured money into stocks that tanked.

 

  • When I bought my used Mini Cooper last spring, I let emotion override my better judgment, and ended up paying more for the car (and getting less for my trade-in) than I should have.

I could name dozens of other examples big and small. But the key is every time I realize I've made a financial mistake, I try to learn from it so I don't repeat it in the future. Sometimes I do repeat my mistakes, but I try not to. Instead, I try to fail forward.

Building success from the ashes of failure
In Failing Forward, John C. Maxwell writes that there are seven key abilities that allow successful people to overcome failure instead of taking each setback personally. Successful people:

    1. Reject rejection. Successful people don't blame themselves when they fail. They take responsibility for each setback, but they don't take the failure personally.

 

    1. View failure as temporary. “People who personalize failure see a problem as a hole they're permanently stuck in,” writes Maxwell. “But achievers see any predicament as temporary.”

 

    1. View each failure as an isolated incident. Successful people don't define themselves by individual failures. They recognize that each setback is a small part of the whole.

 

    1. Have realistic expectations. This one is huge. Too many people start big projects — such as paying off their debt — with the unrealistic expectation that they'll see immediate results. Success takes time. When you pursue anything worthwhile, there are going to be bumps along the way. And remember: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

 

    1. Focus on strengths. This was one of the biggest lessons I took away from Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek. When I interviewed Ferriss last year, I asked him to expand on this idea. He told me: “Focus on leveraging and amplifying your strengths, which allows you to multiply your results. Fix any fatal weaknesses to the extent that they prevent you from reaching your goals, but perfection isn't the path to your objectives; finding ways to cater to your strengths is.”

 

    1. Vary approaches. “Achievers are willing to vary their approaches to problems,” Maxwell writes. “That's important in every walk of life, not just business.” If one approach doesn't work for you, if it brings repeated failure, then try something else. Maxwell is saying that to fail forward, you must do what works for you, not necessarily what works for other people.

 

  1. Bounce back. Finally, successful people are resilient. They don't let one error keep them down. They learn from their mistakes and move on.

These seven points form a firm foundation for dealing with failure in all parts of life, including personal finance. As you pay off your debt, as you learn to invest, as you cut your spending, accept that some failure is inevitable. But you are not your mistakes. Own them, learn from them, and move on. (And remember: Good habits keep small mistakes manageable.)

It's never too late to change direction, to start making smart choices. If you're 40 and don't have retirement savings, you can start saving tomorrow. If you're 30 and staggering under the weight of credit card debt, you can cut up your cards and make a commitment to change direction. The wonder of the future is that it can be built upon the ashes of the past.

At 40, I can look at who I am and can connect the dots back through my life. Though I regret not saving for retirement when I was younger, though I regret accumulating massive credit card debt, though I regret living a consumerist lifestyle, I see now that these experiences made me the man I am today. Without them, I wouldn't be motivated to help others make smart money decisions. (And let's be clear: I am not advocating that others repeat the mistakes I've made.)

Failure is okay
Every day I write this blog, I'm afraid I'll fail. (At my personal site, I recently said I've experienced “1000 days of doubt” at Get Rich Slowly.) Whenever I do my weekly podcast, I'm afraid I'll fail. And as I've written my book over the past nine weeks, I've been afraid of failure every single day. But I do these things anyhow. I know that if I don't try the things I'm scared of — if I don't risk failure — I'll never succeed.

I wrote about my fear of failure back in June of 2007. I described how I'd spent much of my adult life shackled by fear. But by saying “yes” to the things I'm afraid of, my life has become amazing.

If you've made poor financial choices, don't let them get you down. Don't let them make you afraid to try again. Draw from your experience. Fall down seven times, get up eight.

 

This is the 10th of a 14-part series that explores my financial philosophy. These are the core tenets of Get Rich Slowly. Other parts include:

Look for a new installment in this series every Monday through the end of the year.

More about...Psychology

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
55 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Craig Ford
Craig Ford
10 years ago

JD,
I think we could even say failure is essential. A scientist friend of mine had 78 trials before he perfected a flavor he was working on developing. Each “failure” he said was just a lesson in how to improve his next experiment.
The same is true of personal finances. Our failures teach us valuable lessons. The lesson are only useful if we are paying attention.
I look back over the last ten years and I’m thankful for my failures because they have taught me priceless lessons.

Mark Foo | 77SuccessTraits.com
Mark Foo | 77SuccessTraits.com
10 years ago

Hi J.D., What a great post! It is so important to educate people about failure. Just as you said, “The ability to keep going in the face of failure is critical to success.” You provided some excellent points on how to overcome failure. I’d like to add to your post the different ways of defining failure so that people can see “failure” from a different perspective. These definitions are what I learnt from Dr. Robert H. Schuller‘s book, Success is Never Ending, Failure is Never Final: Failure doesn’t mean you were dump to try; it means you had courage to… Read more »

Brett McKay
Brett McKay
10 years ago

I’m in the process of learning this important lesson. I have a tendency to dwell on my failures and let them define me. Not very productive.

I’ve gotten better, though.

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
10 years ago

I agree with Craig; failure is a learning experience as long you keep at the task. If you give up, you’ve learned nothing.

Writers Coin
Writers Coin
10 years ago

I’ve always tried to look at failure as an opportunity to test myself and see what I’m made of. How will I react to this situation and what will I do to get past it? We aren’t tested very often, but failure is one of those times where you can truly find out what you’re made of when the going gets rough.

Saundra
Saundra
10 years ago

A coaching colleague says that the coaching skills either take a client deeper or moves them forward. So, in my mind failure is simply the decision one makes to stay down when things don’t go well rather than go deeper or move forward.

Keep up the good work JD!

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Small steps in the right direction are still steps in the right direction.

I say, pick a goal and start working at it. If its finances, pick one small habit and change it, like bring your lunch each day instead of buying lunch. That $5/day saved is $25 a week, $100 a month, put that money towards your emergency fund or your debt. Start tracking your spending, a wonderful way to figure out where the money leaks are, cut up the credit cards and switch to debit or cash.

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
10 years ago

“Fall down 7 times, get up 8.”

I really like the ring of that. I have to modify the number to a much higher one, but the meaning behind it holds true; you must always try again and try something different.

As they say, the only way to fail is to stop trying.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

“The ability to keep going in the face of failure is critical to success” — truer words were never said. On a very basic level, we’d all still be flopping around on our bellies if it weren’t for continuing on in the face of failure: how else does anyone ever learn to walk? It’s a part of the process. We can’t get anywhere without failure, so why not embrace it?

KS
KS
10 years ago

Timely post – like Brett above, I’m going through this path of failure right now in my career, and it’s forcing me to consider carefully what my next steps are. Using the energy of negativity to figure out what next steps are is a Good Thing.

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

If we never fail, then we simply haven’t tried anything new and challenging. What good is a life spent being sheepish and mundane? I’d much rather experience some failures and actually live a life!

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

Your ice skating experience reminded me of my first skiing experience. It was miserable! But, I kept trying and eventually became an adequate skier for a few years. The lesson learned was keep trying. If you don’t succeed, at least you can say you tried your best and move on.

John DeFlumeri Jr
John DeFlumeri Jr
10 years ago

Well said and true as always. Keep going in the face of a recent failure. it gives you another chance at success.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

I took my son (2 yrs and 4 months) ice skating for the first time over the weekend. It was pretty special to hold him while we glided around the ice and pick him up when he fell down.

I’m going to add this post to the list of stuff I want him to read when he grows up. I think it’s important to always challenge yourself and try new things but fear of failure (or what other people think of you failing) can really hold us back sometimes.

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but one of the most inspiring commentary I’ve seen regarding failure was a Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan: “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.” — Michael Jordan I’ve admitted many of my own failures on this site (such as paying $40,000 for a VW Jetta, and losing $20,000 in a charitable… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Great post! And something we’re trying to instill in our own child, who is perhaps too used to easy successes, and keep reminding ourselves. It does seem to get easier as we get older and recover from ever more failures. But each failure really is a learning experience.

David C
David C
10 years ago

Great post. Two years ago on the day before Thanksgiving, while surfing the web during a slow pre-holiday work day, I discovered Get Rich Slowly. J.D.’s story struck a nerve with me, as I was in debt more than I had ever been before in my life. I was determined that I would have the debt paid off within two years as well as hit a few other financial goals. Today, Well I am still in debt, altghough no where nearly as much as back then. Two years ago, I would have considered this as a failure and beat myself… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

JD, this post sums up everything I like about your blog. Thanks for putting yourself out there for us!

Katrina
Katrina
10 years ago

It is so imperative to our growth that we embrace our failures. As a society we typically handle them all wrong (freeze, fight or flee methods come to mind). If we see and accept our failures, we’re learning how to take responsibility. If we don’t, we’re living in denial and doomed to repeat the same mistakes and never get on our intended course. Failure (for lack of a better word) is a great definer.

I read Failing Forward just recently and it delivers an important message we’re just not looking close enough at.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

Learning from failure is a great idea — but I’m not sure it is the same thing as forcing yourself to continue to do something that you’re not good at or aren’t enjoying. It may be that JD will never enjoy ice-skating, and of course he doesn’t have to. Recognizing when to give up on something and move on is hard, because it can mean accepting changes that are not what one hoped for (I’m thinking especially in relationships, or in recognizing that a particular career path won’t work for you: how long should one try for an acting career… Read more »

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

Hey J.D., The opposite of success isn’t failure, it’s giving up. Failure is simply finding out what doesn’t work. The faster we fail, the sooner we find what does work and achieve results. We fail often to succeed faster (hope me linking to an article I wrote isn’t spammy… just thought it’s relevant and helpful to the topic) Plus, failure is a natural part of doing things too. We all suck at first, so the only way to get better at something is to just keep failing, learning what works, and doing that. Over time, we get better, do the… Read more »

mbm
mbm
10 years ago

Hey, don’t dis Tonya Harding! She was a great skater, that whole knee-bashing incident aside.

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

As ironic as it sounds, sometimes failure can lead to the best. Maybe you failed and can learn some things from it, or learn what went wrong and how to fix it for next time. Always put a positive spin on it and try to work harder the next time.

Don@moneyreasons.com
10 years ago

Failure is a funny thing. We all forget that before we learned to ride a bike (or walk), we failed over and over again! And if we didn’t, we’d all be crawling. Luckily, the most influential people in our history never let failure hold them back. Some (if not most) of them failed over and over again (maybe they didn’t beat themselves up over it). Everybody fails sometimes, Benjamin Franklin (arithmetic), Abe Lincoln (too many to list), Albert Einstein (school), etc. The list goes on and on. The trick is never to give up or let it slow you down!… Read more »

Tomas Stonkus
Tomas Stonkus
10 years ago

Dear J.D.:

That is how we learn in life. If we run from failure we will never learn. If we don’t learn, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we waste our lives.

I say we should invite failure to our lives. That does not mean failing on purpose, but it means taking chances and being ready for consequences.

Failure makes life exciting and interesting. If you don’t fail, then you either are a god or a just plain lazy.

Best,
Tomas

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

31 years ago I went on a first date with my now husband. First (and last) time ice skating. I thought the hardest was just getting to the ice! I think they put the benches closer now!

MrsCasanova
MrsCasanova
10 years ago

I agree, failure is the best tool to success. But everything in moderation.

David F
David F
10 years ago

Great article! Some of my favorite failure-related quotes are:

“One who fears limits his activities. Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again.” – Henry Ford

“Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” – Oliver Goldsmith

“To get out of a difficulty, go through it.” – Samuel Easton

“It is difficulties that show what men are.” – Epictetus

“Don’t let life discourage you; everyone who got where he is had to begin where he was.” – Richard L. Evans

Sandy L
Sandy L
10 years ago

This struck a cord. I’m an engineer and in one of my former jobs, it was my responsibility to troubleshoot manufacturing problems. A second part of the role was figuring out how to do something when it’s never been done before (invention). My method was simple. 1) List out all the things that could potentially be the solution 2) Start eliminating the things that aren’t it. You make the best guess at what’s most likely the solution and start working your way through the list. Every dead end could be seen as failure, but in reality, it’s one step closer… Read more »

cm
cm
10 years ago

I love what you wrote, “I know that if I don’t try the things I’m scared of – if I don’t risk failure – I’ll never succeed.” This is so completely true of all things we want to gain and move forward with in life. I love today’s post. Thank you for sharing your insights. And keep skating!

april
april
10 years ago

If you want a lesson about failure and perfection take up cross stitching. Its next to impossible to follow every single instruction, threads tangle, stitches have to be taken out, and patience is required to continue towards the end goal. But after everything is said and done, no one sees the back of the fabric where there are 10 tangled strands of thread, or where you accidentally miscounted and added an extra three stitches to the end of a row. The only thing that anyone notices is that you finished the project, and that it might have a bit more… Read more »

Victoria
Victoria
10 years ago

Thanks for the timely post. I failed to study for the LSAT this year and hence wasted money paid for registration (I registered for December 5, 2009!). I’ll re-register for June, I have established a study schedule to see me through the process. This failure will be my propellant to the next level.

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

Sandy L., I really like your perspective on failure. I place far more value on discovering the things I don’t want or need in life, than the (very) few things I am sure I do want/need. This applies to issues of career, relationships, and life goals.

The things I don’t want in my life serve as beacons from which to keep a distance, so that I can continue down the road of life in the direction of the things I do want — many of which I haven’t discovered yet.

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

JD, I’ve enjoyed your site for a while, but I will love you forever now that you’ve made an Elvis Stojko reference.

Jason @ Redeeming Riches
Jason @ Redeeming Riches
10 years ago

Great post! This is something that I need to remind myself of often. Many times I don’t want to try new things because I’m afraid to fail – when in reality it’s because of failures that I’ve learned the most.

I too could cite examples of money failures and have used those to learn from. I wouldn’t be able to relate to others in my job (financial planning) if it weren’t for past mistakes.

As long as we are learning from them – failures can be great stepping stones!!

Ken
Ken
10 years ago

I’m glad it’s OK because I’ve had my share. My best approach now is to make fewer of them. I definitely need to learn from them. Otherwise, failure has done nothing for me.

Foxie || CarsxGirl
Foxie || CarsxGirl
10 years ago

This is extremely timely for me…. I just succumbed to some shopping temptation, and spent $47 on three things. But I used some of my savings to cover this, savings that’s set aside specifically for spending on things I find and would like to have. (And decide there’s a space they fit in in my life that isn’t filled by something else.) I’m also going to be tackling an over-inflated credit card bill this month. I’ve sworn that I will pay it off and not pay any more interest to this card, and it’s looking like about $200 will need… Read more »

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

If at first you don’t succeed, sky-diving isn’t a good idea, just make sure your failures don’t have too steep of a learning curve that when you fail first you can survive it. Your learning to skate, at a ice rink, with people, if something happens no biggie, good, learning to skate at the back pond by your self and if you fall and break your leg you freeze before you are missed, bad. Investing a small part of your savings in stocks when young, could be good, someone thats 65 and drops it all on one stock, and has… Read more »

cory huff
cory huff
10 years ago

I’m always attracted to discussions of failure. It seems to me that if one is succeeding more than failing, then one isn’t taking enough risks in life – or else, you’re way more perfect than anyone I know.

Failure is tough – but it takes us where we need to go.

bethh
bethh
10 years ago

Oh, that shin pain! It’s so intense and I don’t know how to avoid it! I’ve never been a good or fast ice skater, but it IS fun to do every now and then. Have you roller-skated at Oaks Park? That is an amazing old-school experience.

The Broken Penny
The Broken Penny
10 years ago

JD, great post! I recently started a personal finance blog after being inspired by blogs like yours. Since starting I often find myself feeling frustrated with my writing skills, but I know if I push through those moments I will get better. I think the weak give up, so as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other you can’t lose.
@Kevin, that Jordan quote is one of my favorites as well.

Patty
Patty
10 years ago

Great Job JD – It reminds me of a paper I had to write for my economics final on the elasticity of demand – I chose to find out what makes cat food sell. (I just got a cat! go figure) So off the the library and coming the stacks for lots of statistics, journals, and assorted other information. Back to the lab and pour all this stuff into the model we were using (kinda a geek class too) and voila – I write my paper finding that of all the items I researched I did not find the answer… Read more »

Credit Card Chaser
Credit Card Chaser
10 years ago

I don’t know what it is about ice skating but even though I consider myself a fairly athletic person as I have played college basketball, fought competitively as a kickboxer, and also played high school soccer there is just something about ice skating that has always been very embarassing for me!

Wojciech Kulicki
Wojciech Kulicki
10 years ago

It’s great to read posts like this because they inspire me to keep going. I think that reflecting on past mistakes is one of my biggest downfalls, and I struggle daily to get over things I’ve done a long, long time ago.

It’s good to see that not only can it be done, but you can be financially successful in spite of it.

LeanLifeCoach
LeanLifeCoach
10 years ago

JD, very inspirational post! Professionally I teach companies how to use a Lean Management approach in business which is modeled after the Toyota’s famed Toyota Production System. Routinely when our companies begin a major project we use a Daruma Doll to symbolize their commitment. The Daruma story includes the concept that in life we often encounter failures but we persevere to overcome them. Literally we use the saying “Nanakorobi Yaoki,” translated to mean seven times down, Eight times up. These concepts that you shared so eloquently are core to the success of so many corporations that have applied these principles… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

All day since reading this I’ve had “Pick yourself up” from _Swing Time_ going through my head. A very inspiring tune for a very inspiring post.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDXZkBIxso4
and just dancing no lyrics:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxPgplMujzQ

stonalino
stonalino
10 years ago

JD, I love that you’re from Portland, but I REALLY loved the Tonya shout out in this post! 🙂

I’m in the process of taking what is turning out to be a big risk at work, and I’m loving it! Regardless of how the “higher ups” measure this experiment, to me it’s already a success. Wouldn’t have done it without you having my back.

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

This article was just what I needed today! Thank you!

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
10 years ago

I have often thought that taking criticism well is key to success also.

But then there’s the “dark side’ we don’t want to think about (courtesy of Emily Dickinson):

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed…

Jake @ Dollar Commentary
Jake @ Dollar Commentary
10 years ago

Failure is something that our society nowadays cannot even consider being a good thing.

It’s a foreign concept to us that failing could actually be a good thing and have good results, such as learning from your mistakes and forcing a person to consider other solutions and alternatives.

shares