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I frequently ponder which has been my better teacher, success or failure. For me the scale usually tips towards failure. On the surface this looks like a cup-half-empty instead of a cup-half-full way of looking at life. However, I’ve come to see failure as a gift although it usually doesn’t feel that way, at least initially. Failure is part of the struggle we all have to achieve our purpose as leaders or as human beings.

I now appreciate it as fundamental. Failure has pushed me down and into the dirt. It forced me to confront the facts and be truthful to myself about what I was feeling. It pierced the intricate layers of armour around my heart and broke it open. That’s what hurt the most but that’s when I was most open to understand, learn and appreciate the fullness of the failure; what it took away and what it gave back. What it gave back was a deeper understanding of who I was and what personal gifts and limits I brought into my work. This was not always an easy road to follow.

There were no signs warning about curves ahead, mileage markers, or GPS-estimated travel times. Some lessons were quick and obvious; others were slow, unpredictable and opaque. It was also easy to hit personal pot holes and be jolted from “I failed at this” to “I am a failure.” It was important to be honest about the failure but also to have the same compassion for myself that I would have for others in similar situations.

This journey was not easily done alone. The most fruitful learning came when I had supportive company to help navigate the many twists and turns of self-discovery. Mark Nepo often writes about how over time we are worn into who we are meant to become. I love this idea of how life’s challenges wear away our superficialities and misconceptions. It allows us to grow into a deeper understanding of who we are and what it means to be authentic and true to ourselves and others. The wisdom gained through adversity and the ability to be anchored in, and act from our integrity and true selves, is a powerful gift that leaders can bring to those they work with.

Darcy Shaw

Dr. Shaw is a professor of small animal internal medicine in the Dept. of Companion Animals at University of PEI.