What to do about the Dumbest Word on the Planet

There’s a really dumb word floating out there, and most of us use it. A lot. It’s a mean word. A soul-sucking word. A horrible, no-good, terrible word.

I reveal it through a few quick ditties about people just like you and me. See if you get the theme.

  • Rachel was super-excited as her second grade teacher returned her art project. She was proud that she took her beautiful balloons of color well outside the lines. But then she saw the “F” at the top. “I failed,” she whispered to herself in horror.
  • John was known for getting the job done at the office, and had an idea for a new program that could potentially create new efficiencies for everyone. In the end, though, he decided not to bring it up. Things were going too well for him to fail now.
  • After retiring, Barb was excited to give acting a try. She took a few classes and signed up for her first audition. When she didn’t get the part, her first audition became her last. “I just can’t take failing again,” she confided to a friend.

Chances are you got the pattern. Fail is a dumb word. It may just be the dumbest word on planet.

It’s not the word itself that makes fail so terrible. Its definition, after all, is somewhat simple: a lack of success.

What makes it dumb is what we as a people do to the word. How we choose to define it. The pressure and the emotion and the power we add to it. The size and weight of it.

Fail is a knife we use to stab our hearts. It is a whip we use to flog ourselves. It is a punch directly to our guts. (Any of these metaphors working for you?)

Fail is an excuse we use to avoid taking a risk, to stay stuck.

Fail is the word we use when we want to be as mean as possible to ourselves and to others. It’s that powerful.

And so…I have a radical proposal about the word fail.

Let’s trash it. Forever.

Seriously. Many of us have spent a lot of time trying to redefine and re-contextualize this dumb word. I myself have stood in front of audiences and said things like “the ‘F’ in fail is really for fact-finding” and “failure is how we learn, so it’s really a success”…and I’ve meant it at the time.

What I now know is that it doesn’t work.

For most of us, the word fail is a long-learned trigger. Since we were teensy little things we learned that failing is bad…that it makes us bad.

No matter what we know to be true about our value…deep down we still believe failing means terrible, horrible, no-good things. That we’re losers or incompetent or worthless. Even when we take a risk, the idea of failing still sits there on our shoulders, a lurking, constant threat.

Enough! Let’s stop trying to make the word okay and just get rid of it. It carries too much baggage and too much history.

Make no mistake about it. This is a choice we can all make right now.

But Deirdre…you may be thinking…I don’t have a problem with the word failure. In fact, I use it as an incentive to drive me to get what I want.

If this is you, I say…you’ve proven my point. You, my friend, have given the word incredible power. It so terrifies you, after all, that you’ll do whatever you have to do to make it not happen. I ask you…is the anxiety-producing, dread-inducing fear of failure really the best thing to drive you? Aren’t there other, energizing, less soul-wrenching ways to get motivated? (The answer is “yes”, by the way.)

It’s time to utterly, completely replace fail with better words. Below are a few ideas. They might not roll off the tongue and they might not be sexy and they might not have the same power…but that’s the point.

  • Replace “I failed” with “Things didn’t work out as I planned/wanted/thought they would. And that’s okay, because I’ve learned X/I gave it my best/I’m still a butt-kicker for trying.”
  • Replace “You failed” with “Things didn’t work out as you planned/wanted/thought they would. And you’re still awesome because of X.”
  • Replace “What if I fail?” with…“What’s my back-up plan if things don’t go as I plan/want/think they will?” or, better yet, “I’m going to give this a go and see what happens.” (Got this last one from Phil Keoghan, great guy and host of “The Amazing Race”.)

Heck, even Thomas Edison knew to do this. His response when asked about failure?:

Think he was kidding himself? He wasn’t. He just refused to let this dumb word get the better of him.

Let’s do the same. Let’s retire and trash and slay the dumbest word on the planet.

It just may be the best thing we do all year.

8 thoughts on “What to do about the Dumbest Word on the Planet

  1. Cheri Friedman says:

    This is on the mark. I’ve dealt with kids that immediately say I can’t do that. My response is: How do you know until you try? It’s the negative thinking before trying something that tends to set up the failure as it is going to happen no matter what. But what I’ve seen is that when the kids try, they learn something new even if it is they need to figure out a different way of doing something.

    1. Oh, Cheri…that’s AWESOME that you’re passing this onto kids. If only the rest of us heard the same message at that age! Thanks for the great comment

  2. Samantha Goldstein says:

    So wise, my friend! I am going to put this excellent perspective to work right away! Also I miss you.

    1. 🙂 Thanks so much, Sam…and I’m glad to hear it as you are such a lovely star! Miss you back!

  3. David Fremland says:

    I’ve been eliminating words like fail from my self talk for years now. It really does work wonders on one’s soul. Thanks!!!

    1. Oh that self-talk…such a bugger. That’s terrific that you are so practiced at it. Now you can help the rest of us!

  4. Patty Costa says:

    That’s a great idea Deirdre! Making a decision, taking a risk is a good way to learn what we really DON’T want or need and builds our character.
    Let’s be kind to ourselves!

    1. Such a great point, Patty – trashing failure is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves. I hereby cut it out forever!

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