Failure is Our Only Option: Success is Built on a Foundation of Failed Attempts

Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly. - John F. Kennedy

Look the day is still long, it is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the flock and go on grazing. But they said, we will be unable to, until all the flocks will have been gathered and they will roll the stone off the mouth of the well; we will then water the flock.” (Breishit 29:7)

The Sfas Emes asks, Why was Yaakov so critical of the shepherds, especially that they are idle?

Why does he provoke them? The stone covering the well was massive, requiring several men to move it. What does he teach them by ultimately moving it himself? Moreover, perhaps they had tried before he got there. What message does Yaakov send in being so demanding?   For the Sfas Emes, even earlier, unsuccessful attempts were no excuse to sit idly by; they should have tried again and again. No “failure” should ever stop anyone from trying again, until success is achieved. In other words, only by giving up does one fail. As long as you continue, you only experience temporary set-backs. And that is the point of this narrative – success is won by persistence. With each fresh attempt, a new angle is revealed, a new potential realized, a new line of attack opened. Hope and success is the sure reward for each attempt.

When Yaakov moved the rock himself he demonstrated exactly that. Success had been tantalizing close for the shepherds… if only they had continued their efforts.

Of course, ultimate success is never guaranteed. But we are obligated to continue to strive forward toward our goals.

There was an ambitious young man who asked the great merchant for the secret of success.

“It’s really quite easy,” replied the merchant. “You jump at your opportunities.”

The young man was confused. “But, sir, how can I tell when my opportunity comes?”

The merchant smiled. “You can’t,” he said simply. “You have to keep jumping.” Then he held the young man’s gaze and shared the real secret of success, “Never stop jumping.”

We never know the opportunity is there until we are in midair, leaping toward it.

When Yaakov rolled the stone from the well – like taking a plug from a bottle, according to Rashi – was the Torah trying to charm us with his physical strength? Not at all. Rather, as Rav Chaim Shmulevitz relates, the Torah wants us to understand that Yaakov himself was not aware of the enormous strength he possessed until he dedicated himself to accomplishing the task. Until he “leapt.”

Each of us has talents and gifts. Most of the time those gifts remain hidden until we make the effort to use them and only then do we truly realize we have them! Rav Moshe of Kobrin told his followers that when they fail at achieving their goals or make mistakes, they should not be discouraged. Rather they should focus on correcting themselves in the future; trying again and again, until they are successful.

To illustrate his point, he asked a disciple whom he knew to have grown up in a farm, “Did you ride on a horse?”

“Of course. All the time.”

“Did it ever happen that you fell off the horse?” asked Reb Moshe.

“Many times,” he replied.

“And what did you do when you fell off?”

“I just mounted the horse again, and continued riding. I focused on staying on securely” the disciple answered.

“This is the model how we should react to our failures and mistakes,” Rav Moshe told his followers. “Never give up. Regardless of how many times you fall, keep on trying.”

In the beautiful Tefilat Geshem prayer we recite on Shemini Atzeret, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz notes that we invoke the righteousness of our illustrious forefathers and ask God to grant us the blessing of rain in their merit. When we invoke Yaakov we say, Yichad lev v’galal even mipi be’er mayim – he dedicated his heart, and rolled a stone from the mouth of a well of water. Rav Chaim is clear that we do not ask such favor due to Yaakov’s physical gifts but rather because of the inner strength that came from dedication. He did not “tone” his muscles. He dedicated his heart. He did not let fear or weakness stop him from helping those in need and those suffering around him. Yichad lev – Yaakov dedicated his heart. He focused on succeeding.

The Alter from Slabodka adds that seeing the needs of others is enough to give one the strength to do what otherwise would seem to be impossible.

Whether from seeing the needs of others or from a fire smoldering within, with determination one can reach heights that he never dreamed he could attain.

Yes, you can do it.