Failure is Your Friend

Not many people know it, but George Washington lost more battles than he won in his military career. Yet, the United States became an independent nation and later a superpower. This is because he was able to embrace and then learn from failure. His failure inspired creativity.

Failure is your friend. It doesn’t feel like it at the time. It can be excruciating and humiliating, but after a while, the sharp edges dull. Then you can begin to feel more philosophical and learn from it. In actuality, you can learn more from failure than success – something that is studied in the business world as shown in the article You Can Learn More From Failure Than Success.

The concept absolutely should not be limited to the business world and applies very much to running and fitness. When doing calisthenics in the US Army, we were encouraged to work to muscle failure. This forces the muscles to rebuild even stronger.

Now, I would not recommend running to muscle failure — that is likely to be a recipe for disaster — or at least injury. However, I do propose setting goals that are currently too high or difficult to reach. Then start reaching. Over time you will get closer. If a goal is easily reachable, it’s a bad goal.

Failure defines your limitations. Allows you to adapt and overcome. If you don’t overreach, you will never know what is actually within your grasp.

Think about it. If you set an easy goal and achieve it with little effort, you may feel some mild satisfaction. But what have you really learned? You already knew what you needed to do to succeed and likely didn’t have to work very hard. This means that you had no real obstacles to overcome or work around. We often do this so we don’t feel embarrassed. But why be embarrassed?

I like to set goals that are unreasonable. I usually don’t meet them, but I get close. Much closer than I or anyone would expect. And I usually am farther ahead than the more prudent goal. A good example is my first marathon. I decided that I would try to Boston Qualify my first time out. No surprise, I didn’t. In fact, I was 29 seconds off the required pace. But I was delighted.

Why? I knew that it was unlikely that I would be able to achieve the goal, but I got closer than I thought I would. If I were more “realistic,” I would have shot for a 3:45:00 marathon instead of a BW time of 3:15:00. I wound up at 3:27:35. There is no way I would have ran faster than a 3:30:00 if I wasn’t trying for something faster. And I still have my initial goal. I can just keep working towards it.

Whenever you try to accomplish the impossible, you have to keep working at it and it might just become possible. Sometimes looking at things a different way can point the way to success. Consider the drug Viagra. It was developed to treat Angina and Hypertension. It was not very good for it, but it had a certain side effect. I’m quite sure Pfizer is very happy with the initial failure of the drug.

Never be afraid to strive. Never be afraid to fail. Failure points out what you need to improve. These lessens test your mettle and forge you into a stronger athlete for the next round.


I may have been inadvertently influenced on my title. There is an episode of Freakonomics Radio with the same name Failure is your Friend. Please give it a listen. Always a great show.

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Eric Hunley

RRCA Certified coach. Started to change lifestyle in 2012 when weight was up to 283 lbs. Eventually started running later that year and racing in 2013. Has run in dozens of races and has been featured in some podcasts. Full Bio on About Page.
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