Some years ago, I read a book called the Inner Game of Music. In a manner of speaking, it was about getting out of your own way. Oddly enough, one of the things that stuck with me about this book was a peculiar concept: giving yourself permission to fail. Apparently many people have learned this lesson from many sources.
So yes, it can be a good habit to permit ourselves to fail. And although I am far from the first person to explore the concept, I would like to share why I think it is so.
Paying attention to failure teaches how to succeed. Of course, this only applies when we pay attention, and fail “mindfully.” The truth is that most of us fail a time or two when we are learning something new. One anecdote from the Inner Game of Music relays how when a pair of musicians tried to isolate when their duet went awry, suddenly it was perfect! When we pay attention to how, when, and why we fail, we come up with solutions.
Failure teaches us about ourselves and about reality. How we react to failure can give us insight to who we really are — but again, only if we are willing to pay attention. But more importantly, failure can be the beginning of discovery! Or, as Isaac Asimov put it, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…'” Consider Alexander Fleming discovering that the “contamination” in his bacterial culture was actually exactly the exact bacteria-killer he’d been looking for. If he hadn’t been willing to learn, he might have thrown away that specimen and never discovered that antibiotic.
Sometimes, our failures fail spectacularly! No, I’m not talking about all those online videos we’ve watched many times of people doing stupid things on skateboards or motorcycles. I’m talking about a failure that turns out for the best. My favorite example occurred in the original Iron Chef series. Chen Kenichi was the chef who specialized in Chinese cuisine (a footnote, his father invented “shrimp in chili sauce”). A French challenger chef decided to take on Kenichi-san rather than the show’s French specialist, perhaps thinking this gave him an advantage. The secret ingredient was yogurt, unused in Chinese cuisine. You can see for yourself: between 8:30 and 9:00 minutes into the video, Kenichi-san gives himself permission to fail. After all, he’s never used this stuff, never even tasted it. But freed from the need to succeed, he experiments and innovates his way into one of his most memorable wins.
There’s nothing wrong with failing now and again, as long as you aren’t doing something colossally dangerous.