For three decades Woody Allen was a Hollywood superstar-director. His films, including the Academy Award-winning Annie Hall, grossed tens of millions of dollars and allowed him complete artistic freedom to pursue whatever projects he chose. Then in 1992, Allen’s girlfriend, Mia Farrow, discovered nude photographs he had taken of Farrow’s adopted daughter, who was twenty-one at the time. Allen admitted to having an affair with the young woman, whom he later married. The resulting scandal caused public opinion to turn viciously against Allen.
Today, Woody Allen’s films attract only a minuscule audience in America. The once sought-after director has found it difficult to convince any major film studio to finance his projects. He has lost millions of dollars in lawsuits defending himself against charges of child abuse involving Mia Farrow’s other children. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that Woody Allen has learned nothing from his failures. In a recent interview in Vanity Fair, he confessed, “I’ve gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today.” Hollywood moguls are not the only ones who fail to learn from their failures.
Every day of the week ordinary people choose to repeat their mistakes rather than learn from them: A woman in an abusive marriage finally ends the relationship, only to choose another man just like the one she divorced. An investor bets the ranch on a highly speculative venture and loses everything, only to repeat the mistake as soon as he emerges from bankruptcy. An employee is dismissed after the discovery of his inflated resume, only to lie again in order to secure another position. A husband whose addiction to Internet pornography almost costs him his marriage spends months in counseling, only to return to the computer screen as soon as he completes his therapy.
Failure is inevitable. In addition to the smaller financial, relational, and spiritual mistakes that plague us regularly, we are going to make some gigantic blunders that will bring catastrophic results into our lives: termination, bankruptcy, divorce, and humiliation. Although God’s grace can exempt us from the eternal consequences of our failure, rarely does God’s forgiveness remove the temporary pain we must experience because of our mistakes. Simply put, you are going to pay a price for your failure. You may pay in one lump sum or in monthly installments, but your failure is going to cost you something. By the way, the fact that God usually requires you to experience the pain of your failure is a sign of God’s love, not His hatred for you.
For example, a rancher who erects an electric or barbed-wire fence around his acreage does so to protect his cattle. Even though the animal may experience a shock or sting when it attempts to move beyond the established boundary, the momentary pain keeps it from wandering onto a busy road or into the hands of a rustler. But it still hurts. Similarly, God allows those of us who are “the sheep of His pasture” to experience the pain of our failures.
Profiting from your failure
Failure can exact a heavy toll on our lives. Although we have no choice about paying the price of our failure, we can choose whether we want to continue paying the cost or learn from our mistakes. Imagine your house undergoing foundation problems. Does that don’t close and plaster cracks along the ceiling convince you that something is wrong.
Not knowing what to do, you pay a foundation expert two hundred dollars to evaluate your home. He informs you that although your house is in the beginning stages of a serious problem, you can prevent further shifting regularly watering around the perimeter of your house.
You pay the consultant his fee but decide that watering is too time-consuming and costly, so you ignore his advice. Six months later your home develops serious problems that require ten thousand dollars of repair work. Why would you pay for advice then ignore it? Yet we make a similar mistake if we ignore the invaluable counsel we automatically purchase when we fail. Instead of viewing our mistakes-and their consequences-as unwelcome circumstances over which we have no control, what if we could think of failure as a highly paid consultant hired to help us plan the rest of our lives? Similarly, you have probably already paid a steep price for your failure. You can spend the rest of your life lamenting the unfair
price, or you can view your failure as an expensive consultant hired to give you important guidance about your future.
You can still choose to ignore the advice your failure offers, or you can learn from it. Since the failure fee is nonrefundable, why not choose the latter? The Bible uses the term “reproof” to describe the lessons that failure provides. A reproof is a negative consequence that results from a mistake. Sometimes that negative consequence is a difficult circumstance such as a divorce or bankruptcy. Other times, a reproof comes in the form of criticism from our enemies or even our friends.
Although we can’t prevent reproofs from coming into our lives, we can choose how we respond to them. Solomon describes two very different kinds of people who react in two distinct ways to the counsel that failure provides. A wise
person learns from reproofs (referred to as discipline) while the foolish person ignores reproofs: “He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray” (Prov 10:17). “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov 12:1). “Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honored” (Prov 13:18). “Grievous punishment is for him who forsakes the way; he who hates reproof will die” (Prov 15:10). “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy” (Prov 29:1).
Although Woody Allen paid millions of dollars in legal fees and forfeited box-office receipts for his failure, he admits he learned nothing from those mistakes and would repeat them. Woody Allen is Exhibit A of what Solomon calls “a fool.” How can you keep from falling into the same trap? Instead of continuing to pay for your failure, how can you make your failure start paying you?
Properly assess your failure
Nelson Boswell has said, “The difference between greatness and mediocrity is often how an individual views mistakes.” Failure is not an event but a judgment about an event. Unfortunately, we often make the wrong judgments about our failures, which causes us to wallow in them rather than learn from them.
There are three distinct perspectives of failure that separate successful people from unsuccessful people. People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent. The bad events will persist, will always be there to affect their lives. This kind of harmful attitude is characterized by words such as always or never. “I always mess up close friendships or I never make good investments.” However, those who recover from failure view it as temporary. “I made a mess of this relationship” or “This stock pick was a bad idea” are examples of responses that refuse to make failure the norm.
Some people allow their failure to bleed into every area of their lives. If they are fired from their jobs, they reflectively label every part of their lives as a failure. They catastrophize. When one thread of their life snaps, the whole fabric unravels. However, those who recover from their mistakes are able to isolate their failure to the appropriate life category.
Here is one area in which Woody Alllen excelled. When an interviewer noted with amazement that during the height of his family scandal, Allen still wrote and directed two movies, Allen replied, “Having a stable family life is very nice, but I can work under unstable conditions, too, because-this is not a skill, this is probably a shortcoming-I am a compartmentalizer. Frankly, compartmentalizing our failure is a necessary skill if we plan to learn from our mistakes. Failure in one area of our lives doesn’t make us a failure in every other area.
When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (inernalize), or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lost self-esteem when bad events strike. When a woman goes through a divorce, she can conclude “I am worthless” (internalization) or “This marriage failed because...” (externalization). I am not advocating that you blame other people or circumstances for failures that are clearly your fault, you still need to fees up to your mess-ups. However, you can’t afford to take responsibility for failures that are clearly out of your control.
Failure is inevitable. We are going to make some blunders that will bring catastrophic results into our lives: termination,
bankruptcy, divorce, and humiliation. Although God’s grace can exempt us from the eternal consequences of our failure, rarely does God’s forgiveness remove the temporary pain we must experience because of our mistakes. So you are going to pay a price for your failure. You may pay in one lump sum or in monthly installments, but your failure is going to cost you something. By the way, the fact that God usually requires you to experience the pain of your failure is a sign of God’s love, not His hatred for you.