Failure Extracts Truth Out of Us Like Truth Serum

Jul 8, 2024
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This is the second article in our 3-part blog series, The Hidden Superpowers of Failure, featuring HDO Faculty Member, Becca North.
Last week we considered the stigma and universal pain of failure and how not acknowledging our failures shuts us off from discovering their benefits. This week we’ll dive into the definitions of and the relationship between failure and originality.

Understanding Failure and Originality

Because there is subjectivity in what people call a failure, I find it helpful to turn to the dictionary for clarity. Fail means “to be unsuccessful in what is attempted.” Whenever we go after a goal and don’t reach it, that is failing. If you want to stay in your job and you get fired, that’s a failure. If you interview for a job that you want and don’t get it, that’s a failure. Going for a promotion and being passed up is a failure. Failing also can mean doing something poorly or inadequately, like delivering an ineffective presentation. Failing has to do with whether you reached the goal you were aiming for; it does not speak to what followed from the outcome.

We tend to dislike the word failure. It can feel imbued with harshness, judgment, and pain, so we tend to avoid using it. Ironically, avoiding it may increase its power, whereas using it may sap its power.

Here is a powerful benefit of failure: failure reveals originality.

But what exactly is originality?

Originality is what you do that feels most you—most aligned with who you are in your core. Originality is independent thinking and authentic action. It is your voice—fresh and novel because it is unique to you. Your originality springs from what you really think, feel, and want to do rather than what you believe you shouldthink, feel, or want to do. It flows from what makes you feel alive, what lights you up, what energizes you, and what makes you proud. And it draws on all your faculties, including your physical senses, analytical thinking, intuition, and passion. Your originality is creativity with your fingerprint stamped on it, like your unique brand of creativity. And since we are dynamic—we grow and change—originality is dynamic too. Uncovering it is an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.

Failure as a Portal to Originality

In a world filled with expectations and pressures, originality can be hard to express and even access. Expectations and pressures can put us out of touch with messages of what we really think, feel, and want to do. Failure is a tool that helps us access originality and gives a shot of courage to express it.

Failure cracks us open, allowing hidden contents to spill out. It digs up what was buried out of judgment, forcing it to the surface. The pain of failure turns us inward and pushes us to reflect. It also gets us to listen. Pain, with its loud megaphone, brings clear messages. It helps us to hear what we couldn’t hear before, or what we were ignoring, about what we really think, feel, and want. It restores lines of communication with our core selves that had been compromised or cut. If expectations and pressures serve as a switchboard operator, controlling which “calls” get through, failure fires the switchboard operator.

Messages that were previously denied come flooding in. Not meeting others’ standards can give us permission to listen to our own. In other words, failure removes the censor, and that which was pushed down springs up. It puts our eyes on what we overlooked. Failure elicits truth like a truth serum—it extracts truth out of us. Failure decloaks our core self, exposing it.

Failure clarifies what is essential. Like an abrasive cutting through layers of buildup to uncover a gem, failure scrapes away layers that cloud originality. Failure strips us bare—helping us see the naked, unvarnished version of ourselves more clearly—putting us in touch with our core. For the book I interviewed then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker about what role, if any, failure played in his success, and he made comments that speak directly to this phenomenon.

There’s a soulfulness I find from people who have had spectacular failures or have hit the rock bottom of drug abuse or who have had public humiliation. There’s a soulfulness, I think, that comes from that where you do get better in line with what really matters. And there’s a liberation too, also, when you go through hell. When you say, “Oh my God, I’m still here. All those horrible things have happened and I’m still here. There’s still breath in my bones. And I can still move forward.” And I think there’s a wonderful alignment in that, and what is important becomes more crystal clear and what’s not important gets pulled away.

Failure also makes us dig deeper. It introduces us to deeper reserves than we had previously known, exposing us to unplumbed resources. As an analogy, consider this story about how the Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, California, grows its grapes.

Several years ago, when I was on a tour of its vineyard, the guide told the group about the vineyard’s approach to growing grapes. She said something like this: “We don’t put our grapes on a Coke and candy diet.” She explained that they don’t indulge their grapes with a lot of water. They water the grapes less than most other vineyards. Why? Less water forces the roots to go deeper into the soil. The roots then are exposed to richer, deeper resources in the soil, and drawing on these resources enhances the quality of the grapes. Similarly, failure forces us to go deeper into ourselves—acquainting us with richer resources we had not been able to reach before, unearthing more of our originality.

In short, failure reveals originality.

Trusting Our Truth

And failure nudges us to trust our truth, the inner authority, that we have found. It helps us trust our own experience. Consider this quotation about self-trust and originality from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”: “We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. . .. Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Whereas expectations and pressures lead us to “half express ourselves,” failure helps us to trust ourselves.

Failure is not only a portal to originality, it also can provide a nudge—a shot of courage—to express what we have found. Next week, we’ll conclude our series by discussing how failure and originality pave the way for innovation and happiness in our personal and professional lives.

Continuing your reflections on a failure at work…

What messages do you think you couldn’t hear before this failure about what you really think, feel and want?

What feels like it was overlooked but might be your truth?

Becca North Head Shot

Dr. North is a researcher and author in the field of psychology, and her research is in the area of happiness and well-being—human flourishing, more broadly. A big question in her research is: How can negative experiences foster positive psychological change? She wrote a book that integrates science and stories to investigate the relationship between failure and success and challenge the prevailing view of failure. The book, Your Hidden Superpowers: How the Whole Truth of Failure Can Change Our Lives, illuminates how the way we view failure affects how we live, lead, decide, innovate, connect, and dare.

Her interdisciplinary background, including expertise in psychology, public policy, and history, informs her approach to research and teaching. She also taught for three years in Compton, California, as a corps member of Teach For America. Currently, she teaches at Huston-Tillotson University, an HBCU in Austin, in addition to teaching at the University of Texas, and is pursuing an innovative, multi-disciplinary research project that aims to contribute to the healing of our divided nation by starting in Texas.