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No Such Thing as Failure

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

No Such Thing as Failure

When we fall, we learn and grow.
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley More by this author
May 09, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Interestingly, it was my love for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that led me to Malcolm X. As a youngster, I wanted to know more about this guy Malcolm who was declared by the media and the man on the street to be the frightening antithesis of Martin. When I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I truly understood the worth and value of Malcolm’s life and legacy. Not only did I grow to have an abiding love for Martin and Malcolm; I also wanted to emulate their powerful examples of courage, faith, resilience, and dedication to uplift our people.

These two men, my incontestable heroes, were both assassinated at the age of 39. My admiration and identification were so strong that I was convinced that I, too, would not live past the age of 39. Not that I was remotely putting myself on these icons’ pedestals, no way. But sometimes, when the realities of your world become too harsh, an unconscious fatalism can overtake you and make you seek refuge in someone else’s story as a way to make sense of your own.

But it wasn’t just the far too brief lives of Martin and Malcolm that persuaded me that I would die young. There was another, perhaps even more influential, factor that made the idea of my early demise seem an inevitable, stark reality.

Anybody familiar with the Pentecostal church — especially old-school Pentecostal church teachings — understands the ramifications of “hell and damnation” preached incessantly. “The world is going to end,” “He’s coming soon and if you’re not living right, you’re going to hell,” “Armageddon is upon us — get right with God!” These were the messages that permeated the foundation of my childhood.

The combination of these thoughts — that my heroes were dead at the age of 39 and that the world’s demise was imminent — had me living on the edge. I was scared to die and haunted by feelings that I would not have enough time to make the kind of societal contribution that I wanted to make. This underlying sense of urgency drove me to work hard, work fast, and succeed. Now!

I did work hard and I was blessed beyond measure. By the age of 38, I had accomplished much: writing popular books, hosting national television and radio programs, being featured on the covers of magazines and newspapers, and so much more. I was even financially secure with a comfortable net worth.

Then I turned 39.

The fear that I would not make it to 40 began to overtake me. And what was worse is that I felt like I was a failure. Even though I was just one person — and a cracked vessel at that — I knew I hadn’t done enough. For all that I had tried to accomplish, the problems in my community and my country and the world seemed so intractable. Poverty. Sickness. Crime. Racism. Environmental abuse. Child neglect. Educational inequities. War.

The night I turned 40, I was alone in a hotel room in Houston and had a major panic attack. The details of that night are so traumatic, forgive me for not wanting to relive them here. But shortly thereafter, I did share my nightmare in Houston with my abiding friend, Dr. Cornel West, over dinner.

Doc and I had talked many times before about my fear of dying young, so he understood the reason for the episode. But there was one part of my story he couldn’t quite rationalize.

“How, at 40 years old, could you think that you are a failure?” he asked.

After I answered his question, Doc began to share with me his unique take on the matter of life and death:

“Tavis, the older I get, the more I think that there really is no such thing as penultimate success. I believe that every one of us essentially dies a failure.”

Huh? Doc knew I was having trouble with his reasoning, so he pressed on:

“If one dies at 39, like Martin and Malcolm, or if one lives to be 139, you’re not going to get it all done. There are going to be ideas you will never develop, projects you will never complete, conversations you will never have, people you will never meet, places you will never go, relationships you will never establish, forgiveness you will never receive, and books and speeches you will never write or deliver. We all die incomplete.”

So, Doc added, “the central question becomes: How good is your failure?” With that, he dropped the great Samuel Beckett quote on me:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Doc was right. Ultimately, life is about failing better. Every day you wake up, you get another chance to get it right, to come up from failure, to fail up.

In working with young people through our foundation, I no longer use the phrase just do your best. If what you give the world is your best, then how do you get better?

The conversation with Dr. West freed me because it gave me a different perspective on the true meaning and the real value of failure. Beckett’s quote has become one of my favorites. I share it with young or old, Black or white, whenever I have the opportunity. Failure is an inevitable part of the human journey. Fail up is the trampoline needed when you’re down. When you take the time to learn your lesson, when you use those lessons as stepping-stones to climb even higher than you were before, you transcend failure — you “fail up.”

About Author
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley is a broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist. Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.  Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smile Continue reading