Failure in my mind has much more to do with an unwillingness to engage in the pursuit than it does the results of that pursuit.

“How do you define failure?” Dick asked.

We were at a sandwich place.  I had just ordered a chicken panini and Dick had decided on pastrami.  I was surprised at his question because failure was the last thing on my mind.

Dick had arrived at my cubicle just as I was finishing up a phone call during which I had closed a piece of business that I had been working on for six weeks.  The sale put me at a personal, monthly revenue record and I was all too happy to celebrate by accepting Dick’s lunch invitation.  Besides, lunch with Dick Harlow always seemed to turn into something more.

“I suppose my definition of failure would be the inability to accomplish an established goal,” I answered after a swig of Diet Coke.

“Who established the goal?” he probed.

“Good point!” I exclaimed.  “If I didn’t set the goal, then I wouldn’t ever consider an inability to achieve it a failure.  So, let me revise my definition:  The inability to accomplish a goal that I have established.”

Dick was drinking room-temperature water.  His reason had something to do with cold water impeding digestion.  I wondered if that also applied to beer but I hadn’t yet asked him.

“But, what if you never establish any goals?” he continued.  “Would that mean that your failure was impossible?”

I was pondering the answer to that when our food arrived.

“Chicken panini?”

“That’s me,” I said.  “Hey, Dick, why don’t you ask the waitress?”

“Ask me what?” the waitress inquired politely although I noticed her smile was fading fast.

“How do you define failure?” Dick asked.

“Oh, I don’t believe in failure.”  The smile was back and then the waitress was gone.

“I don’t think that’s a definition as much as it is a philosophy,” I opined as I took a bite of my pressed sandwich.  “After all, just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

Dick had dismantled his sandwich and was eating the pastrami with a knife and fork.

“Why did you get a sandwich if you weren’t going to eat the bread?” I asked.

“Because they won’t let you order just a stack of pastrami,” Dick replied as he stabbed a square of his spiced meat.  “Now back to the question of failure.”

“I don’t know.  It seems there is a difference between ‘failure’ and ‘being a failure’.”

“How so?”

“There are plenty of times when people fail to accomplish their goals, but those failures don’t define them as a failure.”

“Ah, that’s a good point.”  Dick was animated now.  “Is there a limit to the number of times a person can fail – that is experience failure – without becoming a failure?”

The waitress had refilled my Diet Coke, eyeballed Dick’s bread disapprovingly and then hurried off.

“As long as a person accomplishes some of their goals along the way I’m willing to give them an unlimited number of failures without labeling them a failure,” I explained.

“So”, Dick said “an inability to achieve a goal that you establish is a failure but failures don’t define you as a failure.”

“Right,” I agreed.

“Then under what circumstances would you define yourself as a failure?  I don’t mean a failure at life but let’s say that you consistently fail to achieve the goals you’ve established for your physical fitness.  After a series of individual failures in this specific category of accomplishment – without intermittent successes – would you declare yourself a physical fitness failure?”

“Well, it sure seems like it.  At least according to my current definition,” I admitted.

“I’m not willing to declare anyone a failure that fails to achieve goals they’ve established for themselves, even if they fail to achieve them one hundred times in a row without any successes.  To me, the very act of establishing goals and then making an effort and measuring that effort against a standard makes it impossible to declare that kind of person ‘a failure’.  Failure in my mind has much more to do with an unwillingness to engage in the pursuit than it does the results of that pursuit.”

“Does that mean none of us will be fired as long as we keep working hard towards the goals we’ve established for ourselves”, I asked.

By now, the waitress was scared to come back to the table so we hadn’t seen her for a while.  Dick looked around the restaurant, caught her eye and pretended to write his signature in the air.  She reached into the pocket of her apron for our check as she approached.

Dick looked back to me and said, “When you work hard toward the pursuit of a goal and you put your performance out there to be measured, then you become a person who can never be described as a failure.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t end up being described as unemployed.”

About the author

Tim Rohrer

After a 20-year career in broadcast sales, Tim J.M. Rohrer wrote a book, Sales Lessons…

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