Better to Try and Fail — or Fail to Try?

Last night I watched the 2007 movie Lions for Lambs with my son, Jared.  In this movie a brilliant but apathetic student asks his professor (Robert Redford), “Is there any difference in trying but failing, and simply failing to try – if you end up in the same place anyway?”  He was attempting to justify taking the safe route; never really taking a stand or trying anything big.

What do you think?  Do you cringe at trying something big because of the possibility of failure?  What if you tried for the promotion but failed to get it, started a business but lost your investment, or tried a MLM system but got nothing other than a garage full of vitamins – are you somehow better off?  Or would your life have been better if you had avoided the hassle and the disappointment altogether? 

Yes, I hear from people every day who tried and failed.  One gentleman lost $11 million in a gas and oil business.  Another lost $3.2 million inherited from his grandmother in a failed retail clothing business.  Research shows that if you are under thirty years old, the chances that you will be fired in the next twenty years is 90 percent.  Bernie Marcus was fired from a job as manager of the Handy Dan Improvement Center, then went on to start Home Depot.  In 1988 I experienced a horrible “failure” in business – having to borrow a car to drive to start generating income again.  Should I have avoided the pain and anguish by taking a safer route, or was that experience the necessary catalyst for learning the principles that launched the success I enjoy today?  My friend Dave Ramsey lost his real estate business and suffered personal embarrasement after trying to become rich through his investments. Should he have taken a safer career path?

What has your life experience taught you about trying big things?  Have you learned to keep a low profile to avoid failure?  Or have you found that “failure” leads to bigger successes?

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54 Responses to “Better to Try and Fail — or Fail to Try?”

  1. rocketreferral Says:

    Failure should never be in your mind. If you believe your going to fail why try?

  2. tarabridgetmoore Says:

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained I say. Without failure we would not be able to gain the tools necessary for future success. It would seem that truly successful people have also experienced the depths of failure. This is how we learn.

    I would rather try and fail than to never try at all.

  3. Jeff White Says:

    I SAY better to try an fail than not try at all. All of life’s experiences, good and bad, lead to knowledge and wisdom. In three weeks I go up against 4500 other individuals vying for 250 spots with the Orange County Fire Department……….. at 43 years old. Better to try than not try at all. I left a nowhere job with a bankrupt airline to start my own landscaping business. I miss that steady albeit LOW paycheck but I am am sure enjoying being home every night now. Better to try than not try at all!

    JRW

  4. Marilyn Zeman Says:

    A couple of years ago, I was hurt very badly by a bad performance review, because of the review I had lost a lot of my self-confidence to try, everything looked very bleak to me, I wouldn’t even try! I do agree with Dan, it is better to try and fail, then to fail to try. I had so much doubt and fear in me, I kept thinking, “what’s the use, I’m going to fail! Well, all this is from the devil, and it’s not from God. 1st Timothy 1:7 says: I did not give you a spirit of timidity, but of power, and of love, and discipline. the Bible is full of God’s promises to man. Philipians 4:13 says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. I now figure that if I fail, I fail, but I might succeed, and that alone will give me the satisfaction that I at least tried.

  5. Lonnie Roberts Says:

    I remember some time in my late 20’s reflecting on my education to career choice. I was doing something I hated because it was what I went to school to “be”. I had taken the safe route and decided that the major regrets I had as I approached 30 were not the things I had tried and failed but all the things I had never tried. It actually ate away at me. As I progressed into my 30’s dabbling in a couple of adventures, a few curves were thrown my way forcing decision. I did not choose the safe route, I chose adventure. Now at 39, I have survived a couple of tragedies that I feel would have been unbearable if I had not chosen the self-employment path. I can say I would not be where I am today if I had been chained under someone else who was miserably living out the life they went to school and chose to “be”.

  6. feeltrapped Says:

    It is not the failure that I fear but the result of the failure. When you have bills/family to take care of the opportunities seem unfeasible. Luck is preparation meet with opportunity but I never feel prepared.

  7. Randy Linder Says:

    Like my pastor says, every experience or problem in life will either be a stepping stone or it can be a tombstone. It’s our choice.

    Love the blog. Thanks.

  8. Joe Says:

    Dan-

    This article reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:

    It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

    Theodore Roosevelt
    “Citizenship in a Republic,”
    Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

  9. Eddy Visser Says:

    What failure has taught me is not to give in the the wants and desires of others around you. These people will stop you if they can and all in the name of “playing it Safe” and “Saving you from yourself”. These saviors will stop you in your tracks with logical arguments and time tested failure stories. I know, I have let myself be stopped so many times only to see my idea become reailty by someone elses hand. Looking back is not a good thing except to acknowlege a mistake and take that knowlege forward. Its a mistake I keep making, I know it, but I dont know how to stop anymore.

  10. Brad Says:

    Dan,

    I have been an excellent salesman for many years, but never had the “right” situation where honesty and integrity mattered, until now. I interviewed for a postion last fall selling advertising, and didn’t get the job. I was a little bit “down” about this because this was a job that I thought fit me to a tee and would have been something I could have been very successfull at. I took a “seasonal” position in a local Christian bookstore for the Holidays and then in January I called this same person back who had not hired me in the fall. I simply asked if he had anything going that I could help him with. He called me back in about 15 minutes and said “I was just thinking about you.” It was a different postion but doing very much the same kind of work. Bottom line, I just received a check last week for almost $4,000 dollars for one week’s work. Not bad for a guy who has spent more time that I care to remember on the Federal Food Stamp program.

    I once heard Zig Ziglar say, “The only difference between a little shot and a big shot is the big shot WAS a little shot who just kept shooting.” Never, Never give up.

  11. Matt Cox Says:

    Failure teaches you so many things about how not to do something and also how things will work more effectively. It also teaches you about yourself and how much you really can (fill in the blank)____________ fight, rise to challenges, sweat it out when it’s tough, hurt and even win! Just because you don’t make a million dollars and get to retire early doesn’t mean you have failed, look at what you have learned and how it has made you a better person both personally and professionally. There is a flip side to this it can make you mean and rotten, depends on how you respond to the situation.

    The key is to keep getting up and keep trying, you never know what the corner is about to reveal and how you may be able to bless someone else in the process of your walk through it! But we should never sit on the sidelines and view life as a spectator, there is almost no fulfillment or satisfaction from watching. Unless you like Diet Coke and Nachos too much!

    Just my thoughts Dan, Thanks!
    Matt C.

  12. lilac3453 Says:

    If one has a passion, he should go for it but with planning from where he is and with knowledge and attempts to lower risk. For instance, if someone wants to start a business but don’t have the cash to cash flow the business, start to save, and do the business slowly, perhaps by home-based part-time until the business has legs. Many people who do not plan but jump into endeavors with huge loans can get into big problems. My personal experience is that when a business is started with planning and trying to lower risk as possible by research and not getting into debt. So yes try but do it wisely.

  13. scottkd Says:

    Unfortunately hindsight is 20/20. I am in the middle of a failure right now. Do I have regrets? Certainly! It is a very difficult time my my life as a result of my failure. Maybe, once I get to the other side of this, I will see the light. Right now, the tunnel is very long and dark. In spite of being on this road, I am optimistic that I will come out of it. I have maintained my hope.

  14. Terry Says:

    Failure has led me to understand what my strengths and weaknesses are, as well as how I can do things better. Definitely made me a stronger person and allowed me to help others going thru difficult times.

  15. Tom Swift Says:

    5. Humor — Gifted Grandchildren

    An elderly, wealthy woman in Florida was boring fellow beachcombers as she bragged on and on about her two remarkable grandchildren.

    Unable to stand it any longer, a fellow sunbather interrupted her.

    “Tell me, how old are your grandsons?”

    The grandmother gave a grateful smile and replied, “The doctor is four and the lawyer is six…”
    ______________________________________________________________________________

    How much influence loving and motivated grandparents and parents have in the nurture and future shaping events of young children’s minds and their outlook on life.

  16. Stefanie Edwards Says:

    I find that if you are committed to success than you are open to learning from your mistakes. If you look at each mistake and loss as a complete failure, than how can you grow and learn from them? You must reflect on them and grow stronger. At 27 I have been let go from a corporate job without any advance warning just because they decided to go in a different direction. I have already ventured into two MLM/ Sales programs. One which left me with a closet of nutrition products and debt of $6000. But I learned what not to do and that I should do things I enjoy rather than just chasing things for money. It’s been two years since I lost my corporate job and I have been surviving and growing a freelance design and web development business from home using my skills and marketing experience. And can honestly say, I don’t regret my time with that company or any thing else I have done, but I am much happier where I am today: self-employed!

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  18. Joe Says:

    I’m kind of a “mixed bag.” There have been certain risks, dating back to childhood, that have been successful, including trying out for a team and making it (even becoming MVP) despite being one of the shortest guys on the team, changing majors in college which ultimately led to my present career, and moving out of state while some family members criticized my decision.

    However, there were (and are) other times when I “played it safe.” For instance, I was single for many years, largely because I was afraid of rejection. It wasn’t until I detached from the results that good things happened. Through detachment, I met the lady who eventually became my wife.

    There is also the current career situation that I am facing. I want to leave my present field and enter both play-by-play broadcasting and motivational/professional speaking. However, I find that I hold myself back and doubt myself despite feeling that this is my calling.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  19. mrjangles Says:

    Having watched the movie as well I’ve got to say that the idea that the ends justifies the means is one that I’ve never agreed with, and this movie only further emboldens my belief in that.

    In my english class last year we were studying the topic of journeys and the theme that continued to appear throughout each and every text we studied was that “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination”, it is how we go about living our life that defines us as an individual.

    This film presents us with one student with talent but no drive, and two students with drive but little talent and I can safely say that it’s the two soldiers, who act on their beliefs and their convictions that I respect far more than the student who is unwilling to put himself at risk.

    If you’ve got a passion and you’ve got drive, go for it. I’ve heard numerous tales from people (my own parents included) who despite hating their jobs, despising them with a passion, continue to work day in and day out in the same roles because they’re unwilling to risk a steady flow of income. As far as I’m concerned, what use is money if you’re not living a life that you enjoy?

    Mr Jangles.

  20. Lageshia Says:

    I want to try something big, but up until now I have been afraid to try, but I now know that there is no failure in God. I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me!

  21. Dan Says:

    I have trained with weights for twenty seven years. Muscle WILL NOT GROW unless it is subjected to FAILURE and DISCOMFORT. Only then will it find a reason to adapt itself by making the cells larger, stronger, and more resistant. So, in response to the “bright” kid in the movie (which I have not seen), the answer is thoroughly, unequivocally, and in every other way…yes, there is a difference. Too many people expend more energy finding an easy way, than if they just accepted the “difficult way” from the start.

  22. marcos montalvo Says:

    Twelve years ago I left Texas ( which I loved ) to move to Nebraska ( yuk ) to be a grandfather I was so excited to be one that I never considered exactly what I was giving up , my life. I lost everything and became financially broke then I became a dad again unexpectedly ,then I got laid off now I am even more broke and in debt with no light in sight . I am back to work now ,not quite enjoying what I am doing and I am still broke .Twenty eight years ago my twin brother committed suicide, a year later my younger brother was murdered in my sight and for about ten years I fought to stay alive because I chose to so today at fifty I am still broke with no sight of light in sight but I do have a ten year old son who I chose to father who just adores me he is why I choose to keep getting up ,shake the dust off my face and press on through, I’ve lost alot but I have gained much more because even though I am financially broke I am abundantly rich.
    Thank you Ladies and Gents Marcos has just logged out.

  23. triska Says:

    so far, i’d have to say trying and failing always feels better than not trying at all. No nights of thinking what could have been – although this is easier said than done really. Just gather enough courage to take that first step towards conquering your fear of failure.

  24. realdj Says:

    I love the website amnd blog… keep up all the great work
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  25. grace onyango Says:

    Ok. I have been a whining saty at home mum for sometime and then I stopped and decided to do somethimg, many things. I deceded to go back to school for a masters degree, back home in Kenya, I sat in a class nine to five for three months, with all the husstle I could not be there to pray for my kids and myhusband was away. I figured it was not worth my life and I quit. I never told my family members, just my husband. Then I decided to record some songs I had written and my producer let me down so much, I have the CD and no radio station in my country recognizes the songs, however my husband and friends think they are great songs, I feel low at the moment. I am back in the states, my dilemma is how to make the music project work, but one thing I know I will figure out something, this one is my passion. I am still a mum in the house but with a different attitude, I love this place, I just have to figure out how to make money from here.
    Thanks Dan, you are my mentor

  26. Andreas Loose Says:

    Very well written. Thanks!

  27. Cyn Johnson Says:

    Excellent question! A scriptural support for the need to “TRY, regardless of the outcome” might be the passage about how God detests a lukewarm attitude (“I will spew it out of My mouth”). The Children of Israel were led out of Egypt in an attempt to succeed in a big way. That “slave” generation failed, but their children went on to conquer the Promised Land.

    The Prayer of Jabez is an example of reaching out for more blessing than we think we can handle.

    Our “failures” will be tools for success as long as we allow ourselves to view them as diagnostic tools… “where do I need to improve?”, “how can I shore up this part of my character?”

    Another GREAT application for “failure”… we learn better HOW to follow God and how to discern His will from what we want! When we agree with God and Christ concerning what we should do, NOTHING is impossible! [i.e. the "faith as a grain of a mustard seed... to move mountains"]

    Thanks for a great thought starter.

    Hugs,
    Cyn

  28. victoria Says:

    For me it dose’nt seam to matter, one way or the other. I’ve played it safe, and i’ve taken chances. I am still struggle to make a living.

  29. Michael Says:

    I grew up with the mindset that it was better to not try than to try and fail. My father, well intentioned though he was, conditioned me to believe that nothing I did was good enough and that I wasn’t capable of achieving my dreams. His intention was to motivate me to press on and do better each time I tried, but projecting the guilt and shame of his own life failures on me only served to teach me that if I didn’t try, I didn’t fail, and if I didn’t fail, I didn’t have to listen to him talk down to me. In my world, failing to try was actually *better* than failing to succeed. I carried that mindset up until I was 30, just 3 short years ago.

    When I set out to college, I wanted to get my psychology degree. When I told my parents, I was met with, “Do you think you can handle that?” which triggered the same personal doubts that I’d been conditioned to, and I decided after my first quarter to declare for business; a major I had no interest in, but it’s what my father did, so it must be what I was supposed to do. Having no interest in what I did in college coupled with a lifetime supply of “don’t bother trying, you won’t make it anyway” attitude led to me dropping out of school when my father refused to pay for my poor grades anymore.

    Nearly 10 years ago, I took a pay cut from my terrible warehouse job to start off in the IT industry. I’ve been told I’m very intelligent, which I suppose is why I wanted something more mentally stimulating, but I had no real interest in the industry beyond a hobby. Nonetheless, I turned it into a career and ended up working in the webhosting world. Now, I find myself laid off from the only job I knew how to do with no college degree and no professional certifications to help me find new employment. Worse yet, it was work I didn’t even want to be doing. I hated the IT industry because my heart just wasn’t in it. I’ve spent most of the last 3 years wishing I had pushed on and gotten my psych degree.

    It’s hard to keep my focus some days, but I’m working toward finding a way to start over in a new industry. I’ve been told I should write, so I’m working on that as well as trying to find a way back into school so I can get that degree I wanted 15 years ago. I’ve come to draw my identity from my work with my church student ministry (traditional youth group plus college age students) and am in bible college, too.

    I’ve learned that playing it safe and taking chances may both lead to the same place, until you count the cost and that neither of them is always the best choice. Playing it safe can often keep you from ruin, but it can just as often keep you from riches. The converse is true about taking the risk: you may fail, but you may also succeed, and it is not, in my opinion, failure if you take some wisdom away from it. You only fail when you refuse to learn.

    All this is to say that while this article doesn’t, on the surface, seem to address people that believe that it’s better to not try than it is to fail, but rather people that are just apathetic about trying because they expect they will fail, there is hope for people like me, and I wanted to say so. Don’t give up, never surrender. Fight until the break of day and you will invariably find that, whether you stand or fall, you are a success.

  30. Chris Says:

    To me, it really is a question of perspective. I attempted to start MLM, but instead of success I went into debt. But I realize that God was showing me something about my faith and my character through that. Someone said, “You make your own opportunities” and I agree with that, but it is what you do with those opportunities that make you successful. God gives us these opportunities to refine our character, to teach us something about ourselves. So anytime you step out and take a risk is positive. The end justify the means, it all depends on what ends you mean. The process is always more important than the result. I still have difficulty with that because I am a very “results orientated” individual.

  31. Margaret Says:

    I have tried many things thinking exactly like most of the responses were. I am now almost 50 and fervently wished that I had not thought that highly of myself – that I could be successful at something. After the many disappointments I have had, I would have to say – stay safe and warm.
    BUT don’t apply that to relationships. They are the reason Christ came and offered us the gift of salvation.

  32. Luke Says:

    I wish that I even know what to try to fail at. I am 46 and still can’t figure out “what I am going to be when I grow up”. Been through coaching, counseling, etc.. Still lost. We are totally debt free including our house and have a good savings. I am in a good position to try to take a chance on something, but I totally “frozen” in place. Cannot imagine doing what I am currently doing for another 20 years.

  33. Bill Says:

    I believe most people fail because they do not do their research. I passed a drive thru coffee business yesterday that had gone out of business. Beautiful new building across from the local community college. I can only imagine the owners thought the student body would support their business. They were wrong. Another man i know tried golf lessons as airports. Looks good on paper, but even I would never pay $35-50 for one golf lesson without my own clubs and at an airport no less. FAilures are usually built on big dreams that overcome reason. They are also to often built from a heart of greed and pride which we know goes before the fall. Sucessful businesses are built with a good solid well vetted business plan, market research and fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately all are not guarantees of success. There can be greater unseen market forces that cause businesses to fail, like greedy mortgage bankers and wall street brokers.

  34. Asha Says:

    It is better to try and fail, for then and only then is God able to build our faith in HIM and strengthen our character for future “success,” if we allow the “failure” to make us better and not bitter. Not to mention, there’s a pearl in EVERY painful situation and an opportunity in every obstacle.

  35. David Says:

    In making any decision, whether to try something big or not to, the decision should be submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The decision can also be bounced off of wise counselors, such as those who know you well or those who’ve been down a similar path, but ultimately all decisions must be taken to the Father. He knows how to lead and direct the sincere questions of one of His trusting and humble servants. Seek the Lord’s favor.

  36. Jacqueline Says:

    I prefer “Better to try and excell.” Stepping out the “box” is both courageous and challenging, but if you use your skills and resources wisely, when failure comes you would be able to bounce back, just trust in the Lord. If you have that drive to excell further, talk to God first, failure creeps in when we exclude God from our plans. It may look as though the rich who have no time for God, is become richer, and becoming more and more prideful with it, are not failing. Stop! “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, if we fail, we will not fall hard, for the Lord holds everything in His Hands. ” I find failure leads to bigger success.

  37. Sandy Says:

    I have always reached out beyond my comfort zone rather than play it safe. For the most part, my advertising career was a success. During the years I worked for others and as well owned a business with a close friend, which was a venture. We ran out of money and sold a patent. We lost the business and any chance for success in that arena but hey, we would have never been owners of a patent if we had not reached out and took a chance.

    The advertising world is extremely slow now and I am currently unemployed. I believe the Lord put me here to slow my life down enough so that I can know what is important. I have grown in my relationship with Him thanks to the loss of my last job. That, my friend, is a success!

    I know He has something else for me in the future. For now, I must draw near to Him and listen. Whatever His will for me, I will follow.

    Yes, I totally agree with taking a leap of faith into something you do not have a guarantee of success…….as long as it is in accordance with His will for you.

  38. CJ Says:

    My failures definitely helped me understand more about myself and what my strengths and weaknesses are. Now I am trying to recover, and move in a better direction that is in line with my strengths. While I don’t enjoy failing, and I certainly do not enjoy the results, I am better off in the long run for trying!

  39. Shelley Says:

    I believe it is always best to weigh out your choices before jumping into any situation…you know the motto, “Better Safe Than Sorry”.

    But…recent experiences have taught me, that no matter how hard you try, the possibility is there that you will still fail. The important thing is…make sure you are truly trying your best, then, if you still fail, you can at least honestly say you tried.

  40. Jan Says:

    I am so glad I came across this today. I have recently lost a job. It is true during a time like this the only way we can stand is through the grace of God. “Trust in the Lord and lean not unto thine own understanding in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths. I really believe that and I believe this last door shut for a reason. I am 59 years old never asked God in my lifetime what I should do or how I could be pleasing to him and his will for my life. I think it is about time and as long as I am alive it is never too late!
    Thanks for the encouragement “I can do anything with Christ who strengthens me!

  41. Bob Says:

    The attitude to “go for it” and “make your dreams a reality” are great, even, godly principles. However, going for a dream with no skills or experience is “trying to fail.”
    I have had a failure, or twelve, in my life. The one thing that I will not do because of MY (yours my be different) is to invest in someone else’s vision without knowing all the facts and processes that are required to be successful.
    I am a Christian, again, for me, I have a tendancy to think that something is the right thing, pray that God bless the endeavor, and crash. One has to know oneself in the plan of God and take the proper time to learn, pray, and study.

  42. Susan Says:

    I think it’s important to consider that repeated failures can just sap the life out of you. I have been fired from a job, and have tried to explore different careers, and am failing at those. It doesn’t make me eager to try anything else. At this point, I am willing to settle for anything that will give me some sense of competence. I think it’s fine to talk about taking risks and learning through failure – all I’ve learned so far is to dread the next inevitable disaster.

  43. pamela Says:

    I have to say that reading most of the comments in this column, i feel encouraged to know that its better to try. My hope is that when i fail i may have the strength to bounce back.AMEN

  44. Ron Says:

    “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorius triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

  45. Dan Says:

    Thanks for all the thoughtful responses here. And the affirmation that we well in fact – keep trying. I can’t imagine giving up or settling for mediocre when so much is possible. Nothing grieves me more than seeing someone who has buried his/her talent, just waiting on the end to come.

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  48. Jeremy Says:

    This is the situation which, as of this afternoon, I find myself in: All through college I worked my back end off to get into grad school. I am not the best student, so my effort required levels of study that hampered any sort of social life. All of this was or a 3.2 overall GPA. I applied to several grad schools, and only got accepted to one, but this one was my first choice. As of this afternoon, however, one of the only loan agencies that is accepted by this school denied me for the second time in two weeks (initial application, then again with a co-borrower). So, I tried, succeeded, and then had it taken away from me. What about that? What would you say to someone who succeeded and then had the fruits of his hard work taken away? Is it better to try and fail, to fail to try, or to try then succeed and THEN fail? I am a positive person, and I believe in working hard and doing the best you can, because if you do positive things will come of it. I believe that, but at this point in my life it is a purely BLIND FAITH.

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