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Failure is an illusion

“If you don’t do it this time, you’re going to fail and we’re going to do this over again a different day.” Master Taylor’s voice was stern. 

I could barely believe my ears. We were three hours into my grueling black belt test. I had reached the final hurdle, breaking a brick, but I had already failed two times in the past five minutes to break it. I hit it with what felt like everything I had and it hit right back just as hard without breaking. In that moment, when Master Taylor, the sixth degree black belt in American Karate who had trained me since I was five years old, told me that I was going to have to start over the test, I decided, I’m going to break that brick. 

I focused all of my force, then gave in to it and savagely powered downwards. The brick snapped and I hit the concrete basement floor so hard with my elbow I had a bone bruise for a month. 

I almost failed my black belt test. It took me three tries to break the brick that was the symbol of overcoming extraordinary obstacles. But I did not fail. There was no failure that day. 

Since that experience, I have come to believe that failure does not truly exist anywhere. Sean Whalen, the entrepreneur and motivational speaker, says, “Failure is not real. It is a thought process.” Failure is an illusion we have gotten in the habit of accepting as reality when it’s really nothing of the kind. 

The point here is that learning to reframe “failure” can be a valuable asset. In his bestseller, “The Greatest Salesman in the World Part II,” Og Mandino wrote: “Always seek the seed of triumph in every adversity… Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve my performance the next time.” Adversity is just part of the process of improving oneself. There is nothing wrong or bad about failing on the first attempt. Here are Duke, students are surrounded on all sides by massively accomplished “whiz kids.” It becomes easy for us to forget that everyone has their own talents, but also their own challenges. 

Simply trying is a success, because the act of doing something is one hundred percent more effective than doing nothing. The only people who fail, if we must employ the term, are the ones who either give up or never tried in the first place. 

Contemplating failure may seem altogether philosophical, but developing lifestyle philosophies have a tangible impact on our culture and have become a part of mainstream discourse. Andy Frisella, a health and fitness magnate whose business grosses more than $100 million annually, has said, “It is never okay to lose! You should avoid losing at all costs. And if you do happen to lose, then you need to come up with the plans so you never lose that way again!” He recognizes that although actions must be driven by positivity and action, it is also vital for people to maintain pragmatic perspectives. 

After we do not success on a first attempt, we perceive failure. This perception can lead us to develop a habit in which we accept the situation at hand, rather than striving to change it. We all will fail in our lives. We will fail often. If we want to accomplish significant feats, we will sometimes have to deal with significant failures. All people have faced the disappointment of not getting into his or her dream school, missing out on their dream internship or getting passed over for the opportunity they dearly desired. But finding one or two nuggets of wisdom to mine from each loss can turn that loss into a victory. 

The mindset that failure is an impassable roadblock stops us in our tracks. But failure is central to the learning process, and learning more is the best investment in one’s pursuit of self-improvement. After all, it was Warren Buffet, the third richest man alive, who said, “The more you learn the more you earn.” 

No one can learn without failure, so it follows that failure is necessary for success. If it is a necessary step, then it follows that failure is not something to be feared. If anything, it is something to be multiplied. In this equation, more failure equals more success. Learning from present mistakes prevents future ones, saving time and energy down the road. But how do we learn from failure? 

We can do so simply. As Andy Frisella said, all we need to do is take our experience, make a plan so that we never make the same mistake twice, and then take action. 

We are surrounded by people who make the most difficult things seem easy—the Will Hunting’s and Yo-Yo Ma’s of our day and age. But we need to escape the noxious mindset that so easily infects us which pushes us to believe that it’s easy for them, so it should be easy for me too. 

Most of us are neither geniuses nor prodigies; our successes require sustained effort and persistence. If we find something we care deeply about, then we should not give in to the belief that adversity is the end. We must let setbacks serve as a smidgen of encouragement to fight back against “failure”; with the right mindset, every failure marks a step in the right direction. 

Jack Dolinar is a Trinity junior. His column, “more percent efficient” runs on alternate Mondays.


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