Essential Life Lessons on Failure From Denzel Washington

Max Phillips

ve decided to leave my job and give writing a proper go. I’ve had a lot of people tell me I need something to “fall back” on. Frankly, it’s annoying. Why would I want to go backward? Instead, I intend to move forwards. If I fall, it’ll be in the right direction.

It’s a phrase Denzel repeats throughout a famous speech to graduates, and one that makes a lot of sense.

He starts by listing some famous examples.

“Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball, but you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward.
Thomas Edison conducted one thousand failed experiments because the one thousand and first was the lightbulb. Fall forward.”

It’s the idea that to succeed, you must first fail.

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of failures. From failed job interviews to lonely times at university, I’ve learned a few lessons:

  • Failure makes you realize who you truly are. When Amazon rejected me, I learned that it doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy, just that you aren’t the right fit for them. You will be a fit for someone else.
  • Failure is a fact of life. In almost everything you do, you’ll experience failure. You’ll get rejected romantically, for jobs, houses, grades — everything. Accepting that is the first step to success.

Sure, failure is inevitable, but how do you set yourself up for success? Well, Denzel says you fall forward. To start, you need to ask yourself a question:

What Are You Going to Do With What You Have?

Look at some of the most famous faces from history, and they’ll all tell you the same. Talent without hard work is nothing.

Michael Jordan, perhaps the best basketball player of all time, said:

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

The late great Maya Angelou believed talent was electric:

“Talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it.”

Writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe feels that utilizing your talent will bring you ultimate happiness:

“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it.”

You may know you are talented at something but don’t know how to use it properly. I knew I had a talent for writing back when I was 16, so I pursued it into a degree. Afterward, I felt it would go to waste as I applied for a seemingly endless list of jobs I knew I didn’t want.

Fast forward to now, and I write thousands of words every day. I’m doing as much as I can with what I have. It’s exciting to know I am giving my talent the passion it deserves. If I fail, fine, I’ll fall forward.

Of course, in our current climate, this is easier said than done. I’m privileged to be able to give it a go. Even if it doesn’t work out, writing is a skill I can use for the rest of my life. That prospect excites me.

Denzel doesn’t believe in falling back. Fall big, he says. Fall hard. If you fail, at least “you are going to see what you hit.” If you fall forward enough times, you’ll end up closer to where you want to be than if you fall back. By never taking risks, you are never going to uncover your true self.

Failure Is Inevitable

As I mentioned earlier, failure is a part of life, even for men such as Denzel. He said:

“Early in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought — except for the fact that I can’t sing. I didn’t get the job. But here’s the thing: I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back. I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next one.
I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and I failed. But it didn’t matter. Because you know what? You hang around a barbershop long enough — sooner or later you will get a haircut. You will catch a break.”

Incidentally, he won a Tony award in the same theatre he was rejected in 30 years prior. As he says, he didn’t fall back. Falling back is acceptance of your present-day failures. Denzel takes after the famous Nelson Mandela quote:

“There is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Falling back is settling. Falling forward is a risk. It takes a lot to dust yourself off and go again. If you have, then I commend you.

If You Don’t Fail, You Aren’t Trying

Dreams are essential, but they are nothing without goals. On this, Denzel says:

“Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big, but remember dreams without goals are just dreams and they ultimately fuel disappointment.”

Goals make your dreams actionable, but I don’t think they are the most critical thing in life. Sure, goals can provide you with initial motivation to pursue your dreams, but what happens when you’re day 136 in? Does your goal continually spur you on?

I have goals to be a successful writer, but if I hated the day in, day out process, I wouldn’t get anywhere. Happily, I love doing it, so that isn’t an issue. Like Denzel says, your dreams need goals. But your goals need action. They need the process.

Inevitably, when taking action, you are likely to fail. Fulfilling a dream will take you down a path you don’t recognize. At first, it may seem scary. Happily, Denzel’s wife has a simple message:

“To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.”

After all, we regret the things we don’t do, instead of the ones we do.

Don’t Just Aspire to Make a Living, Aspire to Make a Difference

Far too many people live in fear of failing. Instead of hunting life down and chasing their possibilities, they wait for life to reward them. It’s a sobering reality when you realize you won’t be handed anything.

For too long, I have been sat around, hoping life will reward me. I now realize that is not the case. A life lived without risks is boring, so don’t fall back.

Fall forward.

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