Successful Failures

Failure is significant.. sometimes even more than success.

We all want to be successful, whatever the definition of success be. That is human nature. We as parents, want our kids to excel in their academic and professional pursuits. All parents want the same for their kids. We want to succeed in all our competitive exams, in our businesses, as an individual, and as a family. But so is the desire of all others. No one wants to fail. Failure, of whatever kind is considered to be a social stigma, and of course, no one wants to attach that with him. Most of the activities of human life are a sort of zero-sum games. Winning of some is always connected with the defeat of others; it has always been like this, but the realization of it these days is more pronounced because of the fast social media networks. This, less human realization of those who fail and by the actions of those who succeed, is the root cause of many evils; especially in the societies where people are more closely connected. This leads to a perpetual flawed understanding of successes and failures. What is the solution? Solution to all the problems of human life is education; educating the people about the true understanding of life and its purpose. It reminds me of a small act of one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He was sitting in his shop during business hours at the later part of the day. His business of the day had been great. In the afternoon when a customer came, he asked him to purchase his needed item from the next shop who had fewer customers that day. This is the only solution; having compassion for others.

مَناؤ جشنِ بہاراں اِس احتیاط کے ساتھ

کسی چَراغ کی لَو سےکسی کا گھر نہ جلے

(Translation – Celebrate the springs of your life in such a way that your lighted candles do not burn the houses of others.)

Stephen Covey very rightly identifies five Cs as cancers of the society, these are; Competing, Comparing, Contending, Complaining, and Criticizing. We, the believers, need to straighten and refine our understanding of life which has gone very defective by our excessive involvement in the race towards materialism. In their true perspective, Successes and Failures are to be taken as activities of human life and both these segments of life are equally important for complete human development and understanding of life. We need to strongly develop our spiritual and compassionate part and mix it appropriately in all our social interactions. That will then guide us that at times, failures play a stronger role in our lives than successes. When rightly understood and deployed we raise ourselves to real and superior levels of human life. One of the most revered poet Dr. Allama Iqbal says;

تو بچا بچا کہ نہ رکھ اسے تیرا آئینہ ہے وہ آئینہ

کہ شِکَستہ ہو تو عزیز تر ہے نگاہِ آئینہ ساز میں 

(Translation – Do not save and protect your heart from the hardships and pains of life, as the more shattered this mirror is, more precious it becomes in the eyes of its Creator)  

It is true, not only from spiritual aspects, but even from the totally intellectual and cognitive perspective, failing is an important activity in human development. Considering this importance, some of the universities in the USA have instituted specific subjects about it. For example, probably Penn State University offers a course for engineering students, named Failure 101. In this course the students have to experiment, taking risks. They are supposed to work in the stretch zones of their capacities and not be afraid of making errors. Rather consider these errors as opportunities to learn, create and innovate. Their likely-hood of getting better grades probably depends upon the number of errors they make.

Michael Shawn Malone (born 1954 – an American author, columnist, editor, investor, businessman, television producer) says about Silicon Valley: “Outsiders think of Silicon Valley as a success, but it is, in truth, a graveyard of failures. Failure is Silicon Valley’s greatest strength. Every failed product is stored as a lesson in the collective memory. We don’t stigmatize failure; we admire it. Venture capitalists like to see a little failure in the resumes of entrepreneurs”. Silicon Valley is known as a center of significant success, but also significant failure.

Having defined and understood success and failures let us now combine success and failures in a unique way.

A phrase in which two words of opposite meaning are brought together is known as an oxymoron. Some common examples of oxymoronic expressions are: act naturally, random order, original copy, found missing, definite possibility, small crowd, exact estimate, pretty ugly, only choice, clearly misunderstood and on a lighter note maybe Happily Married. The phrase SUCCESSFUL-FAILURE may also fall into this category. However, it requires a little deep thinking, a small philosophy. The term Successful Failure has been used at various locations in human history and published literature. The classical example that can be quoted here is the failure of Apollo 13 lunar-landing mission. A brief of its history: The launch phase of the mission with crew Jim Lovell, Fred Haize, and Jack Swigert, on April 11, 1970 was successful. On 13th April during its flight, it developed some electronics fault. By the combined efforts of the ground station in Houston (USA) and the onboard crew, it splashed safely in the South Pacific on April 17. The mission was termed as a “Successful Failure”, because it failed in its initial mission, nothing had really been accomplished.  But, Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, after around four decades declared the mission in an exclusive interview to Reuters Television (in 2010) as “a great success because people involved have saved a catastrophe with a successful recovery.”

A number of other examples from history and many from our daily lives can be given to explain this concept. Explorer Christopher Columbus failed when he sailed to find India – and found America instead. It was a Successful Failure. When Abraham Lincoln asked the teacher of his son through his letter, “Teach my son that it is more honorable to fail than to cheat in exams”, he was talking of Successful Failure.

There are quite a number of superior human acts that demonstrated true human behaviors at testing times. One; on August 4, 1936, Jesse Owens won the gold medal in long jump in Berlin Olympics with a leap of (26 ft 5 in). He credited this achievement to the technical advice that he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated. Similarly, we will be remembering an incidence when a West Indies bowler did not stump the Pakistani batsman who had left the crease and he let him come back in. There may be many such instances in our lives where human beings came up to their true definition. There is and there has to be a unique higher pleasure in such acts. We must long for having at least some feel of it.

بساطِ دِل پہ عجب ہے شِکَستِ ذات کا لُطف

جہاں پہ جیت اٹل ہو  وہ چال ہار کہ دیکھ

(Translation – There is a strange pleasure and a higher feeling connected to heart by the surrender of self, try losing a move where your success is certain.)

We can have logically four combinations of the words Success and Failure. These are: Successful-Success, Successful-Failure, Failed-Failure and Failed-Success. Let us see what they mean? 

The Islamic history tells that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), directed the victorious Muslims to enter the gates of the city of Makkah with their heads bowed down, less their gaze offend the human dignity of the defeated nation. This was a beautiful example of Successful-Success. Further details of this victory are also graceful and maintain human dignity both of the conquerors and those defeated. On the contrary there are a number of apparent victories of oppressive nations, atrocities committed by strong on weak (when the opponent is very weak and is not worthy of a conflict), or when the task in hand is too inferior compared with the capacities of those undertaking it; in all these cases the apparent successes may be termed as Failed-Successes. The fourth combination is the Failed-Failure. When we do not learn from our failures, these are real failures and can be termed as Failed-Failures; otherwise, there are NO failures at all. Thomas A. Edison said about his failed attempts; “I have not failed. I’ve just found thousands of ways that won’t work.

We are most likely to make mistakes when we work outside our Comfort Zones, and that is the genuine approach to learning new things. If everything we do succeeds, then we are failing, because it means we are not taking risks. Anyone who is afraid of failures cannot learn. It is all about taking risks. As someone very rightly said, “‘If your life is free of failures, you’re not taking enough risks”. “Success and Failure are simply the two sides of the same coin”. Failure is nothing, but success turned inside out. We don’t need to feel dejected when we fall short of an objective. Normally we only remember our successes and do not realize that 1 percent of our successful work is based on our 99 percent failed struggles. When the stone breaks with the last blow of the hammer it is only because of the earlier strikes.

To confront failure without fear we need to visualize ourselves in the center of a circle, which is a small band of a failure circle, surrounded by another circle of larger radius, which is the success area. In this configuration, we have no other option but to go through the failure circle. This will completely remove the fear of failure from within us.  

In the end, having said all that, sometimes, every logic is favoring our success and still we fail, that shows the presence of an ultimate Power, who is controlling all world activities, The Creator of the universe. Our achievements have to fit in His mega plans. The great scholar, fourth caliph and the immediate successor of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Hazrat Ali (Razi Allah-0-Anho) beautifully captured it saying,

  ’میں نے خدا کو اپنے ارادوں کے ٹوٹنے سے پہچانا‘

(I was convinced about the existence of the Creator of this universe through my failures)