May 13, 2015

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” -Thomas Edison

Rather than an end goal, our lives are experienced through journey, through process, and ultimately through growth. There is no possibility of achieving ever-elusive perfection. In order to enjoy the full breadth of human excellence, we must sometimes strive beyond our capacity. This inevitably means we will stumble and that we’ll fail. But this is essential because in the vulnerability of our failure, we learn so much.

There are at least three foundational elements to failure:

1.     Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition.

2.     Human capacity to fail is essential to what we are.

3.     Humans are designed to fail.

Failure, in its own way, keep us humble. When we play it safe, we run the risk of considering for a moment that we are actually perfect since we don’t seem to be failing. If we care enough about others, then we are willing to act upon our utopian dreams, striving to bridge that gap between brokenness and wholeness; we must go beyond ourselves.

President Theodore Roosevelt once pronounced:

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

President Roosevelt may have been inspired by the spirit of the earlier Sages of the Talmud, for they taught that “One cannot learn Torah unless one stumbles and fails first.” Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner—The Mei HaShiloach—explicated further on this point: that God made sure not to reveal the entire truth of Torah so that there would always be more to learn. We can—and must—always discover more.

If one wishes to achieve something great, one must embrace the possibility of failure. Seth Godin said it well:

Go fail. And then fail again. Non-profit failure is too rare, which means that non-profit innovation is too rare as well. Innovators understand that their job is to fail, repeatedly, until they don’t.

One philosopher wrote in the New York Times:

The history of Western philosophy at least is nothing but a long succession of failures, if productive and fascinating ones. Any major philosopher typically asserts herself by addressing the “failures,” “errors,” “fallacies” or “naiveties” of other philosophers, only to be, in turn, dismissed by others as yet another failure. Every new philosophical generation takes it as its duty to point out the failures of the previous one; it is as though, no matter what it does, philosophy is doomed to fail. Yet from failure to failure, it has thrived over the centuries. As Emmanuel Levinas memorably put it (in an interview with Richard Kearney), “the best thing about philosophy is that it fails.” Failure, it seems, is what philosophy feeds on, what keeps it alive. As it were, philosophy succeeds only in so far as it fails.

So what holds us back? Fear of being embarrassed? Lowered self-esteem? Lost credibility? These are all fair fears. But the alternative, of living without courage or accomplishment, should be more terrifying. Some of the greatest prophets and sages in Jewish history, were perceived (or perceived themselves) as failures in their time. Even Abraham, from which the entire Jewish spiritual tradition stems, could not use his extraordinary powers to spare the innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah. Do we look at his inability to save them so a blight on his character?

Let us pray that our failures be gentle but significant and be constructive and generative stepping stones propelling humanity forward towards greater truth, compassion, and justice.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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