The Gift of Failure
By Andy Wall
“If at first you don’t succeed, welcome to the club.”
During my junior year of college, in my first upper-division computer science class, I experienced every student’s worst nightmare: I flunked my first exam. This was not a case of missing the D by a few points. My score was an abysmal 38. Out of a possible 100! My head began spinning as I contemplated the possible implications: Would I lose my academic scholarship? Would I have to change my major? Would I even be allowed to continue my studies?
I scheduled a meeting with my professor to review the exam and discuss my options. I walked to his office with great trepidation, fearing a nightmarish conversation in which he told me, “You can’t cut it in this major. Get out!” Instead, I was greeted warmly. We reviewed the exam and devised several strategies for improving my overall grade. Most significantly, my professor affirmed his confidence in me as a student capable of completing a degree in Math and Computer Science. I’ll never forget that meeting! And I’ll always be grateful to that professor!
Have you ever had such a disqualifying experience? Have you ever experienced the kind of failure that makes you doubt that you have anything of value to offer in the world? Unless you’re very lucky or never take any risks, chances are, you’ll experience falling flat on your face more than once in life. It’s not a lot of fun. But it can provide a significant learning opportunity.
Nothing reveals our blind spots like failure. Successes, while certainly more fun, rarely challenge our assumptions, clarify our misconceptions, provoke deeper self-reflection, inculcate greater humility, or increase our empathy. At times we might feel like Charlie Brown, when Lucy reminds him that “You learn more from your defeats than you do from your victories.” Charlie Brown responds, “That makes me the smartest man in the world!” Charlie Brown is onto something.
Consider the experience of the apostle Peter following his appalling denials of Jesus. The risen Christ meets him on the shore of Galilee, where three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter is wounded by this questioning, seeing in it a painful echo of his three-fold renunciation a few days earlier. Each time after Peter reaffirms his love for him, Jesus calls Peter to “feed my sheep.” Clearly, Jesus sees more in Peter than his greatest failure, inviting him on the greatest adventure of his lifetime as a leader in the early church. Far from disqualifying Peter from this invitation, I believe Peter’s failure helped him become a better leader, tempering his natural boldness with humility and providing a personal experience for helping others in their faith struggles.
May we remember our Lord’s gracious response and invitation to Peter. May we know that we are more than our worst failure. May we experience the deeper wisdom that failure can bring as we seek to live out our faith with love and humility.