How to Fail ... in Healthy and Redemptive Ways

God designed your self-image to be your friend and ally, to help you make great choices, to find your passions, and to succeed in all walks of life. And it was designed also to help you fail well. This is one of your self-image's greatest benefits. You need to learn to fail in healthy and redemptive ways, because fail you will.

People with a healthy and accurate self-image don't have a big problem with failure. When they don't get a promotion at work, or their spouse gets mad at them, or their kids don't respect them, they know what to do. Here's what failure looks like when our healthy self-image enables us to fail well:

  • Disappointment: That was a bummer; I'm sad about this.
  • Leaning on God: I need his help and wisdom in this.
  • Support: I think I need to call my friend Pat about this and get some face time.
  • Learning: What was my contribution to this problem? What do I need to change?
  • Adaptation: It's time to swing the bat again and try things a different way.

That's how it should work when we fail. Since failure, and even repeated failure, is simply a given in life, then over and over again we go through these five steps, and each next time we fail well and at a higher level.

Entitlement cripples your ability to fail well and hampers your capacity to learn and grow from failure. Research has shown that entitlement creates a paradox of self-images within us, one external and the other internal. The two self-images are in conflict.

The person with entitlement looks confident about himself on the outside, to the point of arrogance or cockiness. He doesn't need to prepare his talk, practice his golf swing, or take a course on building a resume. His external self-image says, "I am above all that because I am special."

Given what we've seen and experienced about entitlement, we might expect this. What we might not expect is that there exists a different self-image deeper within the entitled person, one that is insecure and afraid, and above all, risk-averse. The entitled person is deathly afraid of taking a risk and failing. The risk he's avoiding might be asking out the goddess he has been worshiping from afar, or applying for the dream job, or asking a friend to hang out with him who might just say no. In all cases, the perceived failure would be too devastating. So he postures about his specialness, but he never gets anywhere because he remains frozen in his ability to take normal risks that everyone has to endure to get anywhere. His internal self-image says, "I can't do this and I can't try."

I have a friend whose parents encouraged him in what he was gifted at and could do easily but avoided pushing him in areas he would have to work hard in to be successful. He was a talented musician but didn't like math. So they let him slide in math and kept him focused on music. The result? As an adult, he loves his music, but he has great difficulty in his financial life and has been in serious trouble with his money. So does he face his financial challenges? No, he freezes and avoids them, because he is so overwhelmed when dealing with matters that are hard for him. After all, dealing with difficult matters is a skill his parents never forced him to learn while young. You don't want your child, spouse, or employee to have this experience.

There is one simple solution to this "double self-image" problem: Help people to feel competent because they are competent. The young baseball player doesn't need groundless praise; he needs parents and coaches who will support his attempts to develop a better swing with hundreds of pitched balls until he starts connecting. The young grad student needs a job where she is around people as intelligent as she is, who challenge her and who help her wrestle with difficult matters.

People don't first feel competent and then become competent. It's the other way around. They become competent and then they feel competent. It is the history, the experience, the at-bats, that create a sense of "I can do this." And before we reach that point, all we have is, "I have people who love and support me while I am not-yet-competent." And that is enough. The sequence, then, is this:

  1. Before you achieve competence, you are loved, you are okay, you are supported by God and others. It is grace, the essence of love that is not performance-based: "Though I am not competent at this, I am loved" is the positive self-image at this stage.
  2. You try new things, and while no one does them well at first, the "loved" self-image carries the day.
  3. You practice, learn, get advice, fail, and adapt.
  4. Gradually, you begin doing things better. Now the self-image says, "I am loved, and I am competent."

This is what works. Love precedes confidence, but confidence can't exist outside of failure and adaptation. When your self-image aligns with what is real and true about you—in other words, how God sees and experiences you—it works for you and not against you.


Taken from The Entitlement Cure by Dr. John Townsend. Makes a great graduation gift! 🎓

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Watch Dr. Townsend talk about why giving back is an important antidote to entitlement.

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