How to Approach Failure
Throw your net back in the water.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was based on a single iconic image: an elderly fisherman named Santiago coming back with a massive, 18-foot skeleton of a marlin attached to his skiff, his prize catch having been devoured by sharks after an intensive three-day battle.

This wasn’t a one-time bit of bad luck for Santiago either. The book begins by telling us he had been out 84 days without a catch and labels him salao—unlucky. This was the climax of a long run that was damaging his reputation with the other fishermen, all culminating in a towering display of skill and fortitude that nonetheless ends in failure. In the aftermath, Hemingway shows us two reactions: one from the elderly fisherman himself and one from his young protégé, Manolin.

More than simply being a man who fishes, Santiago is a fisherman. That defines how he lives his life and how he responds to this event. He immediately begins to implement plans for next time. Having learned from his most recent excursion, he will now build a good killing lance and keep it on board with him for emergencies. He won’t go out without the boy again. Despite the magnitude of recent events, he moves forward in life an improved fisherman having learned from his failure. In other words, he accepts and implements the correction that life’s events have given him.

The boy sees the old man’s failure and cries. He hasn’t learned the lessons that a long life has taught his mentor about accepting and dealing with failure and correction.

We all deal with the elements we cannot control—what society calls luck, but what we as God’s people understand is still fully in His control. Ecclesiastes 9:11 says: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

The difficulties we encounter are God’s way of building character in our lives. Before Solomon describes the effects of time and chance, he tells us how we should approach that: ”Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (verse 10). Yes, regardless of any circumstance, we are directed to do everything with our might. This isn’t just about what we do in the moment, but what we do day to day–how we lived our lives through those 84 days when we couldn’t catch a fish, and how we responded when the big event in our lives came.

1 Peter 2:20 tells us that our reaction is the important thing: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”

Santiago says he was “born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.” What were you born to be? If you were born to be a fisherman, you’ll live your life a certain way no matter what. If you were born to be a king, you’ll live the way a king was meant to live. Psalm 51 shows us how King David took correction—with unmatched humility and thoroughness.

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, emphasizes the importance of employees having a good “critical feedback loop”—in other words, the ability to take and implement correction after a failure. If they don’t have that, he simply can’t work with them. That is a major flaw in the current generation that has earned the nickname “snowflake.” We must not allow ourselves to melt under pressure.

If you fall down, you have to get back up. The wicked stay down; the righteous get up (Proverbs 24:16). Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Failure is a lesson for the next time you try—not a sign that you should never try again.

Whether it’s from our parents, a minister, a teacher or simply the events of our life, there are going to be times when we will have to respond to some sort of failure. This is what Herbert W. Armstrong called perseverance: “[N]ine in ten, at least once or twice in a lifetime, come to the place where they appear to be totally defeated! All is lost!—apparently, that is. They give up and quit, when just a little more determined hanging on, just a little more faith and perseverance—just a little more stick-to-it-iveness—would have turned apparent certain failure into glorious success.”

It reminds me of the approach Elon Musk takes to launching rockets: “He had declared beforehand that he would consider the experimental launch a success if the rocket cleared the pad, rose high enough to blow up out of sight, and provided a lot of useful new information and data. Nevertheless, it had exploded. Most of the public would consider it a flaming failure. … But the rest of the control room began applauding. They were jubilant at what they had achieved and what they had learned. …

“‘Nicely done guys,’ he said. ‘Success. Our goal was to get clear of the pad and explode out of sight, and we did. … This is an awesome day’” (Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson).

That’s the attitude Santiago had: Even though the outcome wasn’t what he wanted, he had still achieved great things out on that ocean. He emerged a wiser, better man.

Choose to respond to a negative outcome not as the younger generation often does, but as Santiago did: with resolve, consistency, perseverance. Rely on God to help you implement any correction you receive. Throw your net back in the water, and go after it again like the great Santiago would have—and like the great king you were born to be.