When Failure Is Not Your Fault

It seems popular these days to advise people that if they fail it is all their fault and that they need to take ownership of their failure and learn and grow from it. While I think this is certainly the case most of the time, as Captain Picard reminds us above, it is not the only scenario for failure. Sometimes we do everything correct and we still fail. Or sometimes the circumstances of our situation are such that no matter what we do we will never succeed. Perhaps we are aware of these circumstances, but perhaps we are not. It doesn’t really matter in the end because we will not be able to overcome them.

I believe that it is better for failure to be your fault rather than to fail because success was impossible. If your failure was because of something you did or didn’t do, then that means success was likely within your control. You can analyze and reflect on your failure, correct your mistakes, and succeed (or at least improve) the next time. It might not feel good to admit that you failed, but long term it is better to have failed and learned and grown from it.

It is far worse though, I think, to fail simply because the circumstances would not allow you to succeed. To be sure you can still reflect on such failures and learn what you could have done better. But knowing that success was ultimately impossible and that there was nothing that you could do to change that is a different kind of hurt. It’s a hurt that leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless. Whatever things you might realize in hindsight that you could have done better are overshadowed by the feelings of despondency that come with realizing success was never an option.

I feel like my life has been a series of this 2nd type of failure. I feel that even though I have reflected on and learned what I could have done better or improved, that ultimately success was impossible.

Now before I go any further, allow me to explain what “success” in life is for me. At different points in my life I have had different versions of success. At one point success for me was having a family and being wealthy enough so that money wasn’t a limiting factor in pursuing opportunities. Then as time progressed I stopped caring about wealth and just wanted sufficient income to support my family. Then some more time passed and I stopped caring about having kids. Then still more time passed I stopped caring about having a wife. Now I am at the point where for me success is simply being able to support myself and move out of my parent’s house. While the devolution of my vision of success is likely significant it really doesn’t matter for the purposes of this article because at no point in my life have I achieved any of these versions. And furthermore, being able to support myself is a fundamental requirement for all these versions anyway.

So is it possible for someone to try for 15 years and not even achieve the most basic level of success of any version of success he has ever had? Oh yes. It is quite possible.

I graduated High School in 2004. I decided that I wanted to do computer network management, so I enrolled in a program for training in that. I graduated that program with an Associate’s at the end of 2007. Oh yes. Do you remember what happened in 2008? I do. I remember quite well. It was The Recession. Now Florida, where I was living at the time, was one of the hardest hit states by The Recession. In fact we were competing with California and Michigan for the highest unemployment rate. Not exactly something that you want to win. So the economy that I graduated into was one of the worst in U.S. history. And as you might expect I wasn’t able to really even get this career off the ground because there were literally no jobs around, not even in the tech industry in my area.

So with my first attempt at success having failed because of something I could do nothing about I figured I would get a Bachelor’s degree. The only job I had found was at a call center, which I hated but it was money, and since I was considering seminary and needed a Bachelor’s for that anyway I figured it was a good next move. So I enrolled in a web development program at a local University. Unfortunately that program ended up being completely worthless, but between grants and scholarships I didn’t spend any money on tuition there anyway. Not to mention that it really failed to instill any passion for web development in me because it made the practice so convoluted and unclear.

So having failed a 2nd time because of a University’s terrible curriculum I decided to make a 3rd attempt at success. After all, 3rd time’s a charm right?

No. No it isn’t.

Initially I was very excited to have been accepted to DTS. At this point I am 8 years or so out of high school and I still have yet to really start a career due to so many things going wrong. So when I got in it felt like something finally went right and I was for once excited and optimistic about the future. In hindsight though it seems I only got in so that I could fail again. Some of you are aware of the many health related issues that I dealt in seminary (if not they are documented on this site elsewhere) and how no matter what I tried or did I simply could not get things under control. Ultimately these issues cost me most, if not every, opportunity I had post-seminary.

So now I feel like I have failed a 3rd time for reasons that I ultimately had no control over.

And now I am just tired. Tired of failing for reasons I can’t control. And quite honestly I don’t feel like trying anymore. Even when I do get the motivation and the energy to start working towards “success” again it isn’t long before the ghost of past failures shows up and starts whispering to me, “this attempt will also end in failure and there is nothing you can do to change that outcome.”

Now I don’t think that my situation is typical, but I think it does happen. And maybe someone reading this is in a similar situation and needs to know that sometimes failure isn’t your fault. Sometimes the circumstances of your situation are such that you were never going to succeed no matter what you did. Unfortunately though I have no advice or “solution” for when you when run out of motivation and just want to give up. All I can say is that I am right there with you. But if you figure something out, please let me know.

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1 thought on “When Failure Is Not Your Fault

  1. forworldscience

    I am not in your shoes, but I wish to speculate on something.
    I, too, feel like a failure. I feel like I have only barely gotten through every necessary checkpoint to where I am, and that I’m far behind where I should be (which is true, from a career standpoint). I have put so much effort into getting research started, into writing papers, into teaching students, into making friends, into connecting with others, into church, into improving myself, into evangelism, and I have nothing to show for it; it’s not enough. I feel completely exhausted, and I am not doing as much as I should (my coworkers are quick to point out what I should be doing) and yet unable to do more. The colleagues around me keep telling me, “Oh, don’t be sad, don’t be tired, don’t be anxious, think about all the people who have it worse.” And that hurts, because you know you’re not strong enough to deal with ‘worse’. Those people are better than you.
    The job I have, I was in the right place at the right time with the right connections. And that’s what it comes down to, although I have so much trouble accepting it: I need God to do anything. It’s all God’s grace.
    But, from your perspective, I still have a job. I’m self-sufficient (as much as can be possible anyway). Yet I *feel* like a failure. I *feel* exhausted. It’s only on good health days that I can recognize the good.

    So long story to give this conclusion: our ‘failures’ may be because we are focused on the wrong things. I get that that’s kind of your point, and you’ve tried to shift focus.

    What if God doesn’t care if you have a job right now? Is there anything that brings you joy in day to day life?
    I might be a failure at work, but I can offer to cook a meal for my overworked colleague or lend a sympathetic ear. I might be a crappy researcher, but maybe my persistence and conduct is a witness for a Muslim student. I can get a small pleasure in the smile from the people around me I can encourage on a day -to -day basis. Stupid Facebook memes make me laugh. Meditation podcasts bring some perspective.
    It’s a temporary fix. I’m resigned to continue on and see what happens.

    Maybe you can volunteer somewhere low-key. Find something manageable that brings you satisfaction. Shift focus.

    Reply

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