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Finding Success in Failure

Colleen McBride (21). A friend of mine recently asked me, “When was the last time you failed as a leader?” I smiled, and without a moment of doubt responded, “Every day.” I could tell he was a bit confused. He was clearly expecting a big go-to story of mine when I did X, Y and Z. But the simplicity of my answer made him stop. I proceeded to tell him that part of being a leader means accepting failure with open arms. It also means recognizing it in its smallest of forms. Put the two together, and you’ll realize that failure happens every day, all the time. It’s up to us to either see it or ignore it.

Failure happens to every leader, but not a lot of people like to talk about it. In fact, most people try to avoid it at all costs. After all, who wants to be a failure in life?

But what if we changed our perspective. What if we replaced the word “failure” with “opportunity” – opportunity to learn from mistakes, reroute plans, develop our character, spark conversation, and inspire others. Changes the game a bit, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison in reference to inventing the lightbulb – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I love this quote. Here we’ve got a guy who embraced the road to success and celebrated every roadblock along the way. He could’ve removed every setback from his memory, but instead he chose to flip these moments of failure on their sides and recognize them as attributes of his work.

As student leaders, we naturally live each day with a passionate drive to reach success. Rise up in positions. Fundraise more money than last year. Gain more support. All great things, but they don’t – and can’t – happen without setbacks.

Empower Orphans is still very new as we are only in our 3rd year at Penn State. As I reflect on my own personal journey at Penn State, I can’t help but attribute my growth as a leader to the growth of Empower Orphans, and here’s why. Empower Orphans has failed many times. (Yep, I said it). We’ve set goals and visions, developed strategies, created action plans, and many times along the way failed to achieve the type of success we originally wanted. But despite all the small L’s we’ve taken throughout the years, we have yet to fail altogether. In fact, every failed attempt at reaching our goals has directly contributed to the level of success we have today as an organization. I’ve watched our executive committee time and time again embrace the moments in which something didn’t go as planned. We’ve even had a good laugh about these times – again, it’s about perspective. Instead of covering up our failures from the past, we choose to be open about them. We embrace them.

What I’ve witnessed from EO is applicable to everyday life. As soon as we alter our approach to failure, realize that it’s an innate building block of success, accept it in its entirety, and then proceed to utilize it, we can truly put ourselves on the fast track to obtaining a much more fulfilling sense of achievement on both personal and professional levels.

Empower Orphans at Penn State started from nothing and has blossomed into something. I’ve been blessed enough to work with EO since its humble beginning and to witness what happens when student leaders whole heartedly embrace good, solid failure.

I am 100% confident that, in the years to come, Empower Orphans will continue to fail just as often as we will succeed. Why? Because at the fundamental core of it all, it is through failure that we ultimately succeed in growing – as individuals, as community members, and as leaders of tomorrow.

So, yes, I smile when I hear the word “failure.” I think back to times when results didn’t go as planned. Grounded in the belief that everything happens for a reason, I see every moment of failure as one reason why I am the person I am today and why Empower Orphans is the organization it is today. After all, we have never failed. We’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work in establishing a philanthropic organization on campus.

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