What does failure mean? Confronting a dangerous perspective

So here on this blog, I’m all about changing our perspective on failure. According to the Oxford Learner’s dictionary, failure is defined as the ‘lack of success in doing something or achieving something’. Now, I don’t believe that to be true at all but I wanted to hear your thoughts. I was curious to see what words people generally associated with failure. So, I consulted Reddit and its 48 million monthly readers. I asked one simple question. What does failure mean to you? In this post, I’ll not only be discussing the top results, but I will also be challenging them. I’m hoping that by the end of this, you’ll realise that failure isn’t such a bad thing after all. 

100 responses later, my survey was complete. Here are what people responded with:

  • 54% – Me/Myself/I
  • 34% – Disappointment  
  • 6% – A part of life  
  • 4% – Giving up  
  • 2% – A part of success  
what is failure

As I want to give each definition the attention it deserves, I’ll only focus on the top two definitions in this post. 

Failure is ….me 

This was by far the most common reply to the survey. 54% of responses contained the word ‘Me’, ‘Myself’, or any of its variants. As shocking as this result is, it’s not all that surprising. So many of us internalize every single failure experience that we’ve ever been through. It’s no wonder that it becomes a part of our identity. 

Growing up, I used to be very critical of myself. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was a perfectionist. I needed to do everything myself and it needed to be perfect. For a while, this attitude paid off, and I got excellent grades in school. However, something dark was brewing beneath the surface. 

See, I started to feed off the compliments people gave me for being smart. I would overhear conversations that my parents would have with their friends. Oh my, your son is so intelligent. He’s going to do so well in life. He is so perfect. The pressure started building. 

what does failure mean

It wasn’t long before I got addicted to being perfect. I needed that praise and attention. I just couldn’t get enough. By the time I got to University, I had run out of steam. My grades started slipping and I experienced failure for the first time in my life. My world was completely shattered. If I wasn’t perfect, then who was I? 

This experience makes me empathize so much with this survey response because I’ve been there. I understand what it means to take one failure and make it your entire world. However, let me provide some counter definitions.

  • Failure is not the end.
  • Failure is another life experience.

Something that helped get me out of that funk was allowing myself to embrace failure. I had to disconnect my self-worth from my performance. At work. In relationships. Wherever. And so, every morning, I would speak this positive affirmation to myself.  

My performance is not my self-worth 

I absolutely didn’t believe it at first, but over time something started to click. I became more comfortable with failing, and started taking more risks. The crushing feeling that used to come with failure lessened. I’m not going to lie and say that failing doesn’t affect me. However, I’m more willing to put it in the past and look ahead towards a brighter future.

Related Post:

50 Morning Affirmations To Start An Amazing Day

“I feel like a failure” – Everything you need to know if this is you – Hack Spirit

Failure is disappointment 

The runner-up response focused on the concept of disappointment. I suppose this response comes in two parts. Disappointing other people and disappointing ourselves. Let’s start with the former. 

Disappointing other people 

Humans are very social creatures. It’s always been this way. From our primitive days, it has always been beneficial to be seen as a ‘good’ member of society. As much as we won’t admit it, we still pretty much act the same way today. We’re still desperate for social approval. 

So the next time you’re unhappy that you failed, I want you to ask yourself some questions. Does my unhappiness stem from letting other people down, not because of the failure itself?  Am I letting someone else’s opinion of me dictate my life? If the answer to both questions is yes, then you need to make a change. The honest truth is that failure is completely subjective. I would much rather fail at life on my own terms, than be successful on someone else’s.

Related Posts:

Social Validation – 3 Quick Questions To Find Your Why

what does failure mean

Disappointing ourselves 

Now let’s look at the second half of disappointment. The thought that we have let ourselves down in some way.  

Social media has warped our view of success to such an absurd degree that it’s no wonder so many people think of themselves as failures. There are people on Instagram posting extravagant holidays every weekend. Influencers selling courses on ‘How you too can have six-figure months!’. We are constantly bombarded with perfection that we have no sense of what’s normal anymore. 

So, when we consume all this content, we start to question ourselves. Am I doing enough? Why am I not earning as much as they are? I’m working twice as hard. I am a failure because I am not them.

Comparison is the enemy of progress. Once you start comparing yourself to others, you begin to head down an ugly road of unrealistic expectation and disappointment. 

So instead of looking at failure is letting ourselves down, let’s try another definition.

  • Failure is freeing myself from expectations.

By adopting this style of thinking, you are allowing yourself to be the version of yourself that you truly want to be. The real you. 

Related Posts:

Perfection is an illusion: There will never be a right time to start.


The results of this small research show that we have a long way to go. In response to ‘What does failure mean to you?’, so many people still have very negative perceptions of what the word truly means. Some see it as their identity, whilst others view it as a disappointment to themselves and those around them.

However, all hope is not lost. There were some positive responses to the post as some people recognized that failure is simply a part of life. Hopefully, in time, this will become the dominating response. 

What do you think? Do you relate to any of the definitions I’ve talked about today? Are there any others that you think would be a better fit? Let me know in the comments below. I’m curious!

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8 Replies to “What does failure mean? Confronting a dangerous perspective”

  1. This is such an eye-opening post. Personally, I don’t see failure as a bad thing, I think that’s how we grow and I would never demonize myself for failing. As the saying goes, fail hard and fail fast so you can learn and move on.

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. I have come to learn that failure is a part of life and sometimes we just have to accept and move on. There is no point beating yourself up. Learn from them and move one.

  3. I have failed so many times in my life… I even failed at a job interview recently and yet I consider myself quite successful. When I look back at my past I feel proud of what I accomplished.
    Every time you think you failed, you’re just improving your chances to get something better 🙂

  4. Great post! It’s so easy to fall into the ‘Me/Myself/I’ category when thinking about failure but in reality, failure is part of life and success. What matters is that you learn from your mistakes and don’t give up 🙂

  5. This is great information. I didn’t realize so many people view themselves that way. I define failure as a chance to try again to do something better; practice. I don’t see it as an end, just as an experience within an experience.

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