Guest Writers

Failure IS an Option: a #LessonLearned by Iris Zimmermann

After our son tried (and rejected) what seemed like every sport invented, my husband and I were tearing out our hair. Athletic adults who recognize the value of competition, we wanted our son to be involved in something physical… anything, but we were running out of options.

At some point, we heard about the Rochester Fencing Club and from the moment our son held saber, he has loved the sport that fits his personality.

I am fortunate today to have Iris Zimmermann, Olympian and Co-Owner of the Rochester Fencing Club as my guest blogger. Iris holds the distinction of being the first U.S. fencer in history to win a world championship in any weapon or any age category. In 1995, she won the World Under-17 Championships at her first major international event. Four years later Iris became the first US fencer to medal in the Senior World Championships, earning the bronze medal in women’s foil.

Iris has an amazing teaching ethos and runs a terrific program. Of course, she wants students to have fun, but she is all about personal responsibility, good sportsmanship, hard work and patience. You might think a Champion competitor would be all about winning, right? Well, here’s what Iris has to say on that topic. Follow Iris on Twitter @rocfencing.

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Failure Is an Option

Failure is the new “F word”. The more I step into the life of coaching, the more I realize that failure has become something more feared than Snooki in a bathing suit. (If you don’t know who Snooki is, good for you). It’s not just the kids that fear the black cloud of failure, but the parents who put all their hopes into the athletic endeavors of their 6-12 year olds who can’t stand to see little Timmy “fail.” I think this is why so many school and athletic programs have adopted the “everyone wins” strategy.

I’m sorry Timmy, but everyone does not win in this world. Rather than go on a diatribe about the downfall of Darwinism and the culture of healthy competition, let’s start talking about what failure can do for you.

In order to do this, you will need to accompany me on a short trip down memory lane. While training for the 2000 Olympics (yes, I am type A), there was this United States team fencer who had a tattoo on his arm that read: “Victory or Death.” I joked with him about it and said, “Nice tattoo. You must win everything. What’s your secret?” The fencer, who could count height as one of his strengths, looked down at me and glared.

Let’s get this straight. No one is that good. Michael Jordan — “The Greatest Basketball Player of All Time” according to the NBA website — knows this. He said:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Well said, Mr. Nike Air. Let’s take an academic step forward and do some modern research. What does Wikipedia say about failure?

Failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.

Interesting thing – “may be viewed as the opposite of success.” The Wikipedia community is, in general, back and forth on the scale of accuracy of definitions and explanations. However, in this case I would say they hit the nail on the head with the definition.


Failure is only a view or perception of the opposite of success. The problem with failure is that fear of this perception can keep well-meaning people from becoming great. So, if failure is just a perception, is it possible that if you altered your understanding of this perception you could make failure a valuable tool? For those of you like me that are to the point. Failure is merely a state of mind.

First of all, a person has to get it through one’s thick head that he or she must fail in order to succeed.

When I competed, I think my most powerful tool was that I wasn’t afraid to lose. I somehow knew that within every “failure” there existed an opportunity to learn about any weak points in my game. Having made peace with losing, there was nothing to be afraid of — which made me a very effective fencer at a very young age.

At age 14, I was the youngest to win a Cadet (under 17) World Championship medal and until recently, the youngest at age 16 to win a Senior National Championship title. I owe much of that success to losing competitions because if I was afraid, I would never have tried some very risky actions that ultimately helped me to win important competitions.

What separates the “good” from the “great” is the state of mind they chose to be in when they come up against a hurdle, a loss, or a failure. Unlike many people who are paralyzed by the thought of failure, the successful people are the ones who learn and move on. If you don’t believe me, take it from Michael Jordan.

How has “failing” helped you accomplish your goals? Anything you want to ask a World Champion?

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

37 thoughts on “Failure IS an Option: a #LessonLearned by Iris Zimmermann

  1. This is absolutely fantastic, both from the perspective of a lifetime athlete and as a writer and mother. Yes, I know a lot about failure and fearing it as an athlete. At a certain point in my career, I choked. I started to grip the ball too tight when I pitched, afraid to let it go, like a mother holding on to a little boy eager to race off to school. And the pitch would rise, higher and higher, a few inches, maybe a foot, out of the strike zone. Interesting eh?

    I’ve learned to cope with this fear, I think. But it is absolutely paralyzing if you let it control you.

  2. The full disclosure is that I had a time period of my fencing which was later in my career that I faced this fear. Full full disclosure is that I went through PTSD therapy because of an abusive coach (that is for another blog). I spent a lot of time with therapists and sports psychologists. Ultimately i stopped training in 2008 but from there I have learned more and grown more as a person because of that adversity. Sometimes the lessons learned are not always applied to the end goal you want but it will apply to where and when it needs to be applied. If I didn’t stop fencing, I probably wouldn’t have met my husband and I probably wouldn’t be seven months pregnant now! There is always an upside.

    1. Hi Iris! Thank you so much for being here this morning! You have so many amazing stories, and if you ever want to share that other story about your couch, El from Running from Hell, would be a great place to do it. She has an enormous Facebook following (over 5K) and her blog is all about pushing through adversity. Right El? 😉

  3. Failure is proof you tried, and you can learn so much from that failure.

    Having said that, I know that as a youngster (hee…I said that like I’m ancient) I had a bad habit of only trying the things I knew I could do easily, because I didn’t want to experience failing. As an adult, I’ve become more ‘adventurous’, trying things I know may not come as naturally. It’s always been a good experience in one way or another.

    1. Amber-I’m glad that you have become more adventurous! There is something to be said about taking comfort in doing things that are easy but it should not be your only M.O. There is a quote from Maya Angelou that acts as my guiding principal in life.

      “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” –Maya Angelou

      We are tasked in this life to “grab the world by the lapels”. Carpe Diem Amber.

  4. I think so much of success is mental. By that I meant that you have to believe you can win. I learn more from failure than from winning, although I need to win once in a while to feel like I am improving.It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to achieve a goal.
    Great post!

    1. Thank you for your response! It does take a lot of hard work. I like this blog’s way of putting together a short list of traits of an Olympian which I think applies to traits of anyone who strives to be successful in life.

      1. High Motivation
      2. Optimism
      3. Mental toughness
      4. Positive perfectionism
      5. Ability to focus
      6. Ability to manage skills

      I think perseverance is also one item that should be on the list

      Also, I would like to add something my husband has taught me. What does success mean to you? Those “wins” are really how you define them. You alone are the judge of your success-what do you think you need to achieve in order to say you are successful? Those goals are not the same as someone else’s goals.

        1. I disagree, Susie. You’ve been on the blogging scene for a relatively short time, and look at your following. If there were such a thing as a blogging Olympics, you would be gold, baby. 😉

          Plus, you seem to read and tweet everyone’s everything. I don’t know how you do it. When do you pee? 😉

  5. I love this post. I may share it with my students.

    I’m always telling my 7yo twins (one of whom is a perfectionist) that failure is the only way we learn anything. How do babies learn to walk? By falling. They fail every time. Until they don’t.

    Thanks, Iris, for this reminder…

    1. Thanks Leanne! I am looking forward to teaching my daughter to walk and that the lesson of failure is a necessary in order to grow. From the way she kicks in my belly-she’s going to be a feisty one just like her mama! 🙂

      1. Leanne: Iris is pregnant and very adorable. She may have champion training, but she has no idea about how this baby is going to rock her world. This girl is going to come out wielding a foil. 😉

        I would love to see her with William and Viv for two hours. That would be so awesome. Plus William could learn to use a sword properly.

  6. I’ve jumped into things knowing full well the outcome would be failure. Or at least there was no chance of winning. Was running for office against impossible odds and resources a fool’s game? Got an astonishing 26 % of the vote. Did I fail? Did I gain ? Was I better for it ? Mostly yeses. A victory manifested itself that subsequent officials implemented all of my proposals and the evolving history of the city turned out just as I predicted. Recently I got kicked off the condo board again. They call 3 times a week asking how to do something.

    1. I have always wanted to be a writer-a dream of mine. I’ll keep that as a thought. I love Maya Angelou’s quotes and I am going to keep going with them.

      “Some critics will write ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer’ – which is right after being a natural heart surgeon.”

      1. *blush* We have a great group of parents and kids at the fencing club. I’m a very lucky person to have such great groups of people! 🙂

  7. It’s so nice (and by nice I mean awesome) to “meet” you, Iris! What a great guest post. I love the concept of viewing failure as a perception. Writers often think that rejection of their work means it’s no good, but I think I’m finally coming around to thinking of it as: every rejection is just one step closer to achieving my goal. (I mean, eventually a rejection’s gotta turn into an acceptance, right?!)

    1. Julie, I swear, the parallels between becoming a published author and a world champion anything are amazing.

      Since Iris wrote this post, I have been thinking the same thing you have. Every time we try a different voice or a different exercise, we are stretching ourselves. Sometimes our experiment works and we get a lot of great feedback. And sometimes it blows-up and we get silence. But we learn from that stuff, and it really does make us better.

      I appreciate it when people tell me I’ve made an error on a post, or I get a “nice” rejection letter where someone offers me some constructive criticism: all those little jabs actually make me stronger.

      Not that I ever have experienced rejection. *cough cough*

  8. WOW! I teach seventh grade and my kids – my students are struggling with failure, they don’t want to fail. There are some days – really – I truly SUCK! And I really don’t want to fail either, but sometimes I have to fail or fall flat to learn, to grow, and move forward. No one wants to fail, seriously. But, failure is, really, what happens when you don’t succeed. In terms of my failures – they are a result of trying something new and not getting it right. Realistically – I can’t succeed every time – it is just not possible, success is a result of hard work, taking realistic chances, and learning to deal (critically) with an incredible amount of failure. Falling, getting up, and getting back at it – never stopping. MJ is correct – you miss a lot of shots to make a few!

    1. Clay: Iris left a comment for you. She just pressed the wrong button. It’s confusing. You might want to look back.

      Your comment making a connection between teaching and failure is an excellent one. The problem is, schools don’t allow for much failure. Students are just supposed to “get it” and move on. You know I admire you and all you do for your students.

  9. Think of it this way. If you were perfect at everything-what would be the point to life? Everything would be so boring.

  10. Y’know when you think about something, it starts popping up all over the place. Failure’s been on my mind, I planned on reading J K Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address to my 12 grade students to give them some perspective on failure (which Iris affirms), a might just include this post in the lesson as well.

    1. Hi TooYoung!

      They are both two totally smart chicks. And you are right: this is a message that students need to hear. She isn’t saying failure is okay — she’s saying there is much to learn from failing and it can motivate a person to be his or her best self.

  11. Love this! Too many people (me, at times too), want the pay off on things without putting in the work. And how do you “put in the work” without some big, old, face plants?!!

  12. I too was thinking about the parallels of a would-be author when I got to the comments above…

    Rejection is hard but necessary. I’ve been told that success in writing is not a matter of if but when…however, too many people give up.

    The effort is too great, the sacrifice too steep, the sense of failure too intense.

    And yet.

    I. Won’t. Give. Up.

    Thanks for reminding me about the other side of failure, Iris.
    Sometimes, Wikipedia does get things right, huh?

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