Failure: The Key To Success
Second Place Winner of the MyLife Essay Contest
Failure. The very word sends shivers down the spine of any would-be entrepreneur. It is often the reason that many people refuse to give up their day job in order to pursue their big idea. It is often why so many companies burst onto the world scene, only to fade a few years later when they fail to adapt to changing trends.
Fear of failure holds so many people back from pursuing the things they truly would like to accomplish. Imagine how different life would be if we could overcome this fear!
Could there possibly be a benefit to failure? Can we learn to embrace the risks and in fact relish failure when we experience it? What are possible steps one can take to overcome the fear of failure?
This essay will explain the Chassidic concept of yeridah letzorech aliyah (lit. descent for the purpose of ascent) and the process of yesh-ayin-yesh (lit. existence, nothingness, existence) and how they can be applied to an individual who experiences failure and enable them to overcome their negative experience.
Problem: Foiled by Fear of Failure
So many people are debilitated by their experience of failure. They fall into a rut that takes many years to get out of… and sometimes they never do.
For some, the very fear of failure is cause enough to debilitate them. The concern that one may fail holds many people back from trying. It can cause them to lack confidence in their ability to achieve and can even cause them to become overly anxious, to the extent that they procrastinate until the opportunity passes.
We will attempt to solve this problem and offer some solutions for those challenged by it, through looking to Chassidus and then extrapolating various ideas which we will then apply to life.
Chassidic Concept: Exclusively Elevating
Built into the building blocks of our universe is the concept of yeridah letzorech aliyah(1); that the final purpose of every experience, even seemingly negative ones, is for the aliyah, for an ascent. Yeridah letzorech aliyah is essentially the system in which one is constantly on the rise and always improving – even descent is part of the ascending trend. And as we’ll soon see, it is the system in which failure is actually the key to success.
In the Chassidic discipline, Yeridah letzorech aliyah is used to explain many concepts including creation in general and the soul’s descent into this physical world. It also explains the phenomenon of setbacks and failure; they are not permanent conditions, they are in order to achieve a greater and more lofty goal.
[aside] It also explains the phenomenon of setbacks and failure; they are not permanent conditions, they are in order to achieve a greater and more lofty goal. [/aside]
When G-d created the world, He created it in a way of descent(2); the material world is a descent from the lofty spiritual worlds. Even the spiritual worlds are a descent from the Initial Source, seeing that they are defined and limited(3).
Although actually created through descending, the final destination of all of creation is a state of revelation and redemption (4). Indeed, the initial intention and primary purpose of the entirety of creation is to be elevated. It follows then that every detail of creation must reflect this reality. Every single part of creation, and definitely every single human being, must reflect this reality.
This process again reflects the ideas being discussed in this essay; were it possible to observe the process as an outside observer it may look as a complete system failure. Where there was previously G-dly revelation there is now emptiness. But it specifically this emptiness that allowed for the universe as we know it to eventually exist along with the ability for Torah study and mitzvah fulfillment, which in turn leads the world to its state of elevation.
See Tanya, Iggeres Hakodesh Siman 20 for more details about this process.
Therefore, according to Chassidic teaching, there is no such thing as failure. It simply doesn’t exist. Failure is not just a necessary temporary setback, it is actually part of the ultimate success(5).
[aside] According to Chassidic teaching, there is no such thing as failure. It simply doesn’t exist. [/aside]
This is true on the macro level with regard to all of creation. We find this also on the micro level with regard to every experience of spiritual elevation.
Chassidic teachings explain at length the concept of yesh-ayin-yesh(6); the idea that in order to change from one state of being to a totally different state of being, there must be a transitional stage of emptiness. This transitional stage is not a step away from the process of elevation, it’s not a mistake or a failure, it is in fact the foundation upon which the elevation takes place.
The above mentioned concepts, as with all Chabad Chassidic teachings, are not merely lofty explanations of spiritual phenomena. These ideas directly translate into the daily life of each individual, as we will explain.
The Torah itself hints to this. The very first account of man in the Torah is a story of failure. The Torah tells us the story of Adam and Eve and their eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. But the narrative related in the Torah seems to hint what Adam and Eve must have realized; that it was all part of G-d’s plan. They were to be given a challenge and they would fail(7) .
But the goal wasn’t only that they should fail, the goal was that eventually through man’s work in this world, the world will reach its intended elevated state.
Bringing It All Together: Why Does Failure Seem to Exist?
While this is a fascinating perspective, it leaves us wondering; why then do we experience failure? If creation is in a constant state of elevation, why do some experiences feel like failure?
In other words, it seems that on one hand we say that failure is non existent; everything has to be in a constant state of elevation. Concurrently, there is a definite experience of “yeridah,” or failure, that people experience. And while it may be part of their ultimate success, it most certainly creates a feeling of emptiness.
In truth, the failure experience was part of G-d’s plan and is part of the very nature of creation, because it is only through failure that we can truly experience growth. True growth comes as a result of failure. Without failure, man can never truly access his real potential.
Incremental growth is possible to be accomplished gradually, building on our previous success. In order to grow exponentially, however, we often need to experience failure; a period of drastic decline and withdrawal.
Incremental growth builds on our previous work but exponential growth sprouts from a clean slate. We need to start again from nothing. The vulnerability of failure, the emptiness of the experience, opens us up and creates the space for exponential growth.
Ok, So Now What?
Although a wonderful concept, how does all this help one recover from failure? How does the information we shared above relate to someone who doesn’t even try something due to the fear of failure?
- “This too is for the good” – First and foremost, recognizing that failure is not a real part of this world helps us recognize that the key to our success is embedded within our failure experience. The most important thing to remember when it comes to overcoming failure is that “this too is for the good.” The Talmud(8), the timeless source of Jewish wisdom, tells us about a sage who was referred to as Nachum Ish Gam Zu because whenever he experienced a setback, no matter how severe, he would say, “Gam zu letovah – this too is for the good.”
With this idea in mind, we are motivated to examine the failure experience that we just endured, what were the causes that led to failure and what could I have done differently? We have to learn to make failure a real catalyst for growth, by regarding failure as alearning opportunity and not allowing it to hold us back.
- Define yourself, don’t let society define you. Too often we allow ourselves to be defined by external influences. By what happens to us, not by who we are. This affects not only the way that others perceive us but also the way we think of ourselves. When we experience failure we often allow ourselves to fall into the trap of allowing that failure to define us.
We think “I am a failure” instead of thinking “I am a successful, talented individual who is going through a necessary transition.” We must always remember: Temporary failure does not preclude ultimate success.
A common area where we may experience failure is often in our jobs. Society has made our jobs to be much more than they really are. When was the last time that you attended a funeral where the deceased was described as a great engineer or an excellent lawyer? Have you heard of people being memorialized as the best insurance agent or real estate broker? Of course not! We’ll hear of their honesty or loyalty. We’ll hear of their commitment to their family, their friends and their faith.
It is important to remember all the time, but especially when confronting job related failure, that we are not defined by our job. And although we may experience perceived failure, we are not defined by it. We are defined by our soul and our accomplishment of our life mission, to elevate.
- Failure doesn’t exist, why fear it? According to what we have explained, failure (as we perceive it) only exists as a part of success. The fear of failure is a choice that we can make, to fear something that is truly non existent.
Asking questions is a tried and proven method of clarification. It allows us to drill down to the core of a subject and understand its very premise. Through careful questioning and analysis we can apply the information we learn to many other situations. This is the method of Talmudic study, questioning in order to arrive at the central point of the idea(9).
The failure experience can be viewed as similar to questions, its only existence is to obtain clarity. Do you fear asking questions? No! Then there’s no reason to fear failure.
At the very core of all existence is the need to constantly grow. And all creations are continually growing. At times, in order for further and more dramatic growth to take place, there needs to be a stage of emptiness, often experienced as failure. It is a stage that many fear, or at the very least do what we can to avoid. Knowing that complete failure is not possible (unless we choose to invite it into our lives) is a very motivating notion and enables us to overcome the failure experience and continue to advance toward our goal.
The knowledge that Hashem has created for us an existence in which true failure is not possible enables us to see the “sense” of failure for what it is, a necessary prerequisite for exponential growth and elevation towards our ultimate goal. This awareness, that failure is impossible, also helps us overcome the fear of failure.
In short: Embrace failure and allow it to propel you to ever greater heights.
Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum serves as the executive director of the Chabad Jewish Community Center located in Folsom, California. Known for his pleasant demeanor and outgoing manner, Rabbi Grossbaum, together with his wife Goldie and their children, guides Jewish people to discover the joy and celebration of Jewish observance. He blogs atwww.jewishfolsom.org/blog , follow him on Twitter @rabbiyossig.
Footnotes & Sources
1 This concept is explained in the context of the soul’s descent into this world in many places. See Kuntres U’Mayon Maamer 6.
2 More specifically, the process of descent is until the Tzimtzum, the stage in which G-d completely “removed” His presence in order to allow the process of creation and the appearance of seemingly separate entities.
3 For example, Olam HaBriah, the World of Creation, where initial creation takes place in the spiritual form; Olam HaYetzirah, the World of Formation, where this raw “creative matter” is then shaped and formed; and many other limited spiritual manifestations.
4 Tanya Perek 36
5 Likutei Sichos Vol. 3 Page 976-977, footnote 19
6 See the end of the introduction to Shaar Hayichud Ve’Emunah (Chinuch Katan).
7 Likutei Sichos Vol. 24 Page 133
8 Taanis 21a
9 Likutei Sichos, Chelek 3 page 977, footnote 19