A Publication of WTVP

Our failures and mistakes serve as a solid foundation for future success.

Not very many folks know the name George Santayana, but most of us are very familiar with one of the Spanish-American philosopher’s most famous sayings: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Whether you’re the United States of America attempting to prevent another September 11th-style terrorist attack, a business owner looking to bounce back from a difficult season, or simply someone looking to mend a broken relationship, remembering the past provides a framework for interpreting the present, and presumably, making better decisions this time around than last. We all make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes have some pretty negative consequences. So when it comes time to pick up the pieces of a failed endeavor, how should we respond?

Most people know a get-rich-quick guy. He’s always moving from one moneymaking scheme to another, and with each new project, he’s absolutely convinced that this time will be the time he strikes it rich. When we look at the get-rich-quick guy, most of us probably think, “Good grief! Didn’t he learn from the previous 10 attempts that these types of things just don’t work?” This is a classic example of the person condemned to repeat his past because he doesn’t remember the poor decisions that got him to where he is.

There is, however, a flipside to Santayana’s maxim that must be observed as well. For perhaps the only thing worse than not remembering one’s mistakes and learning from them, is remembering them too much and refusing to move forward at all. As that other great American philosopher, Johnny Cash, once said, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

You see, remembering the mistakes of past is important only in the sense that it enables us to have a better future by avoiding those same mistakes. Some of us are so traumatized by the failures of the past, however, that our memory of the past prevents us from taking productive action toward a better future. Sinking into our failures and allowing them to define us is tempting… and oh so easy. Rebounding is hard work and requires courage and discipline. It’s scary, because even if we learn from our mistakes, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll make different mistakes next time around that could very well lead to yet another failure.

He’s no man in black, but the famed Irish playwright (and co-founder of the prestigious London School of Economics) George Bernard Shaw understood the consequences of allowing our failures to defeat us when he said, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” The hope is that once we’ve made enough mistakes and learned from them, eventually we’ll get it right and find success, and for most of us, that’s true. But sometimes it’s not, yet Shaw’s point, which I will co-opt, is that even continued failure is not the worst possible outcome in life. Not even trying is much, much worse.

I write this article on the day that Michigan will meet Louisville for the NCAA men’s college basketball national championship. My beloved University of Illinois Fighting Illini will not win the championship this year, just like the last 98 seasons. However, they will return to the gym next fall to once again try to become a better team and seek success. Why? Because there is always hope for a better tomorrow. If they were to, instead, decide to hang up their gym shoes and not play next year or ever again because they’re just too tired of not winning enough, outside observers would unanimously agree that not competing at all is a bigger failure than competing and losing.

And so it is with us. Learn from your mistakes, but always remember that there is hope for a better tomorrow. Unless you’re reading this in a nursing home, I can promise that you haven’t experienced 98 years of failing to achieve your goals—or 105 years, if you’re the Chicago Cubs!—so get back out there and give it another shot. iBi