On Assignment: Finding Success in Failure

February 17, 2015

I just wrote a historical piece about the Portolà expedition, the first land-based exploration of California by Europeans, and unexpectedly learned a very valuable life lesson. There is success in failure; you just have to know how to find it.

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success. C.S. Lewis

The Spanish explorers led by Portolà set out to find Monterey Bay but found the bay of San Francisco instead. Of course the San Francisco Bay is much larger and ultimately a much more valuable discovery, but these men were so dead-set on their quest that they failed to recognize the significance of their find until after their return home.

(And that was over 1,000 miles later, all on foot, and over half the miles spent marching in a state of sad defeat. Many men died and it seemed their lives were lost for nothing. Needles to say, morale was low.)

Fortunately for Portolà and his crew, the King of Spain realized the largess of their accidental discovery and funded another exploration. Not everyone, however, is so lucky.

Give Your Goals Some Wiggle Room

While my nose was buried in the good smell of library books doing research for this piece, I began thinking about how we all should learn from Portolà's mistake.

If we stick too tightly to our goals and don't allow room for expansion or the altering of our original aim, then we might miss an even greater discovery. We may miss the chance for an even more impactful end result.

This is especially true of writing. When writing a piece you must be open to allowing the research you do to sway your opinion. You must allow new information to change the direction of your piece.

You may have thought you were writing about the discovery of two California bays but maybe the piece is actually about the psychology of exploration.


Mistakes are the portals of discovery. James Joyce

Maybe the piece is about our general inability to recognize success in the face of failure. Because when you fail, you always discover something. That something may not be as groundbreaking as the San Francisco Bay, but it is always something you can use to improve yourself or the world around you.

Don't remain blind to the opportunities of failure. Let the journey dictate the end results and your "failure" could become your greatest success.

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