The passive voice of failure

Why are some people more resilient than others?

Something struck me the other day as I was reading yet another article about the declining nature of American society, from politics, to education, to economic challenges, to crumbling communities. Such articles are frequently filled with hand wringing and a catalog of reasons things don’t work.

People with good intentions don’t have the power to change things. People with nefarious intentions have the power to maintain the dysfunctional status quo and prevent others from gaining access. People are too busy to recognize how broken things are, so nothing much happens. People are so worn out from hearing about all the things that don’t work, they have no energy to go beyond indignant but ultimately feeble protests. The underlying and consistent message is that people are powerless.

This is not true. However, when a cloud of failure hangs over a group of people, a system, a community or indeed, a country for long enough, the belief that you, I, we or they are powerless begins to feel like truth. At this stage, passivity settles in and inertia grinds us down.

The passive voice of failure sounds like this: “I couldn’t because…,” “He wouldn’t let me,” “She didn’t want it,” “Nobody listens to me,” “They shut me out.” Of course, there are a million variations on the theme and it’s likely you have used one at some point during your life.

I certainly have.

But here’s the thing about failure. It’s temporary. A setback. An invitation to have a different conversation, find a different ally, discover an alternative route or find something that appeals to the people you are trying to win over to your point of view. Every “no” makes the distance to an ultimate “yes” that much shorter.

These are all action-oriented possibilities. None of them is likely to offer immediate success, but when you continue moving forward with persistence and confidence that a solution is out there somewhere, you change the energy of a problem. Passivity robs everyone of energy. It is a virtual throwing up of the hands; an admission that you are not capable of meeting this particular challenge. Not now, not ever. When you stop, convinced that you have no other option, you have failed.

This type of failure is uncommon. Maybe it seems like people have punted on the biggest challenges of our time, but watch and listen more closely and you will find people everywhere reimagining their futures, refusing to succumb to the passivity of failure. They may pause for a while to rest, reflect and reconsider, but they come back to fight another day.

How do they do it? What special gifts do they have that you don’t? Why are some people more resilient than others?

For answers to these questions, think about how you have built competence, strength and confidence in the things you do well. Did you suddenly think yourself to artistic proficiency? Did you simply stand up one day and deliver an incredible speech? Did you lay out a detailed spreadsheet with precision and accuracy the first time you tried? Did you have a perfect “difficult conversation” the moment you decided it was necessary?

No, you didn’t. You got there over a period of time—maybe a lot of time—during which you took little steps, learned small techniques and practiced portions of bigger strategies until you gained mastery. Small wins set up larger ones. You progressed from a tricycle to a bicycle with training wheels to a racing bike that takes you to places you can’t go by car. You didn’t quit the first time you fell off your big bike and re-arranged the skin on your leg. You hurt, healed and practiced with temporary caution until you exceeded that level of skill.

The same is true of life’s more serious challenges. If you are willing to endure the bumps, bruises and embarrassments of finding a new way forward, swallow your pride to engage in a different conversation or lay down your insistence on being right, you will begin to find energy where there was once the passivity of failure.

-Susan A. Marshall is an author, speaker and the founder of Backbone Institute LLC (, which has the tagline, “Never grow a wishbone where a backbone ought to be,” and which has a mission to create a stronger, more confident future, one person or team at a time. She can be reached at (262) 567-5983 or

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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