Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t kidding when he wrote in his 1990 hilarious success Hocus Pocus, “I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.” Vonnegut also said about life, quite famously, “When in doubt, castle.”
Considering Vonnegut is a voice of a generation and that he often gave speeches to students, his advice might not come off as particularly productive.
However, there are several important life lessons we can take from Vonnegut’s jaded, rather depressing words of wisdom. The most important being: there is no such thing as a success if we don’t first consider failure.
Whether you’re a child violin prodigy or a failing business entrepreneur, a small-town lawyer, or a sales assistant, there will come a time in life when you will get knocked down.
This is a fact of human existence; perhaps the only way we can come to know success or happiness.
Life is Deeply Fragile and Intensely Puzzling
The scope of each decision is vast, considering that each one made can change a life for better or worse.
When Steve Jobs dropped out of college, he was penniless and inspired but very lost. He was wading his way through an academic terrain he didn’t believe in but was unsure of what he really believed in. In a sense, he failed before he began.
In this, we can learn that failure is a crucial part of the process of learning.
There’s a reason memories we associate with something bad often come to mind before happy memories, and that is because the human brain is wired to remind the person why something bad happened.
Inspiring Life Lessons
Learn these life lessons, and you are well on your way to achieving the things that inspire the drive that’s inside of you:
1. Let Yourself Feel Lost
Feeling lost isn’t pleasant; in fact, it’s downright unsettling. But feeling unsettled, in a twisted sort of way, is also the way we are forced to “grow up” a little, “mature” a little, grow slightly more humble, and be slightly more sure of what we don’t want.
When Jobs founded Apple in his parent’s garage, he was still penniless and inspired but also suddenly deeply driven. In a sense, he became inspired by the feeling of being lost, and developed a strong desire to find his way.
2. Plunge Into Something You Really Believe In
Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, grew up in the Brooklyn projects. After graduating from college in northern Michigan, Schultz moved penniless to Seattle to work for Xerox.
He put everything he had into trying to start a small, independent coffee shop called Starbucks. And when the shop began to grow, so did Schultz.
Schultz had a plan, and he stuck to it. His decision to put everything he had in the coffee shop, while not quite a knee-jerk reaction, only succeeded because he mixed his desire for the shop to succeed with a love of working.
His work ethic alone is something we can all look to for inspiration.
3. Be Flexible With Your Plan
Most often, things will not pan out the way you plan. Mostly, you will change more than your plans. In a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, they found that the more successful the Ducati Course motorcycle team was, the more focused they became on winning, but not on learning.
It made them worse as a team. Only when they lost to a rookie team were they able to improve their skill.
4. Do the Job to Make Yourself Proud
You are the only one who gets to determine what ‘success’ means in your life. Whatever choices you make in life – make choices that will make you proud afterward.
Often this means not quitting, but every so often, quitting is the right thing to do. Know your limits. Know what feels most right.
5. Find Something That Makes You Come Alive
Howard Thurman put it best: “Do not ask yourself what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs are people who are alive.”
What Life Lessons Have You Learned?
If you have ideas you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
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Wonderfully written, and very pertinent to our complex and adaptive lives. As a father to an 8 and 6 year old I am struggling with the tendency of organized youth sports of today. Everyone is a winner. Everyone gets a trophy. Some organizations don’t even recognize the winners of team events. What is this teaching our children at such fragile ages? I remember the taste of defeat was bitter, and if I wanted to remove that taste from my mouth I had to try harder, run faster, and be better than those I competed against. In other words I had to improve myself through the lessons of being defeated… or failing in my own sense of the word.
I will share your story as far as I can, and thank you for your two cents. They will be worth two dollars tomorrow!
Jody, thank you for the kind words. I think we naturally want to add more structure, and less randomness for our children. That’s why there’s all the structure. But this topic really resonated with me because I am a firm believer that failure is the greatest learning experience. Yes, it sucks, but in the end, we become better people (if we realize what we need to change and accept we were wrong) because of these failures.
Excellent points, Jody. Everyone, from kids to grand parents, needs a dose of reality therapy occasionally. After all, there can’t be winning without a little losing. Most importantly, the trill of winning loses its allure if you never experience the sting of defeat.
Thanks Nick, for an outstanding job of writing this post. Hope to publish more of your articles in the near future.
I like Numbers 2, 4 & 5. As for being lost, I always remember a President Lincoln quote: “This too shall pass.” And it will if you follow 2, 4, and 5. If you are doing the think that most makes you come alive, you will change the world and find worth and value in that venture.
Keep the Quest Alive. Loved the article.