Many articles, books, podcasts, and videos these days convey the importance of failure in shaping our future. It’s hard to disagree that success doesn’t come easy. Anyone attempting to climb a mountain will face a fair share of surprises along the way, some good but mostly bad.
The person who makes it to the top isn’t the one who faces many hardships and obstacles along the way, it’s the one who persists and resists - persists in their efforts and resists the easy path to giving up. In other words, it’s not our failure, but our reaction to it that determines where we end up.
The fear of failure can limit us. On the other hand, learning to handle it well can increase our chance of future success. Failure and our ability to deal with it is such a crucial skill in life. Yet, we aren’t really hardwired to handle failures well.
It starts with schools. The dreaded F grade is linked to “failure.” Anyone who has ever received an “F” on their report card will remember feelings of disappointment, shame, and self-doubt. As a society, we celebrate success and look down upon failures. In school, college, and all throughout our work life, we are expected to do well. With our entire reward system designed around achievement, performance and excellence, where’s room for failure?
Yet. You cannot succeed without failing first. Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” This applies to both failures and achieving goals. In other words, if you don’t learn to handle failures well, you may never succeed.
Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it - Megan McArdle
And when you do the wrong things, you may work hard without making progress.
The experience of failing despite working hard stays with you. The negative consequences from the past may lead to inaction when presented with another situation, preventing you from having the experience, competence and skills required to take action, which further instills a fear of failure leading to a cycle of fear and failure which is hard to break.
The only difference that can set you apart from numerous others is your perception and response to failure. It’s to not let failure turn into a defeat, but a lesson to succeed. It’s to not perceive failure as an obstacle but rather an opportunity to proceed. It’s to be the kind of person who’s more fearful of missing an opportunity and inaction, than the person who fears taking risks.
Now that you know learning to handle failures is an important skill in life and nobody is going to teach you how to do it well, you ought to learn it by yourself. It starts with asking the right questions:
When asked, most people would prioritize learning to deal with a failure over getting rid of it. However, there’s a huge gap between what we desire and how we act.
Being risk-averse, most of us spend our time and energy in trying to prevent a failure rather than creating a plan of action to deal with it when it does show up.
Consider some of your last work assignments or projects and do a reality check:
To be successful, be comfortable being uncomfortable. You can't sit inside your comfort zone and expect great things to happen. To achieve things that matter to you, you need to put one foot outside your boundary of comfort. And the moment you do that, be willing to accept that you will fail.
The question is no longer whether you will fail or not, the question is what you will do once you fail. How are you going to deal with the problems when they surface?
Doing anything worthwhile ￫ Failure ￫ Lessons ￫ Learning ￫ Improvement and Growth
When you fail at something, you now know for sure what doesn’t work. You may not achieve success yet, but if you keep putting in the work and learn from your failures, you will get a lot better in the coming months and years.
The more you do, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. The more you learn, the better you get - John Maxwell
In other words, if you aren’t improving, you aren’t really failing and learning.
A great way to measure if you are learning from your failures is to identify what has improved in the last 1 month, 6 months, and 1 year period:
When faced with adversity, most people feel indecisive, restless, and anxious about the future. It is what happens afterward that makes a difference – an optimist is briefly disturbed by the experience, but soon bounces back while a pessimist continues to be paralyzed by fear of failure. An optimist storms out of this phase with the belief that it’s only a rough patch while the pessimist spirals into hopelessness with the belief in the permanent nature of their situation.
Martin Seligman, father of modern positive psychology who studied the “I quit response” to adversity in people writes -
Emotions and actions do not usually follow adversity directly. Rather they issue directly from your beliefs about adversity. This means that if you change your mental response to adversity, you can cope with setbacks much better
When you fail at something, it’s ok to feel disappointed. What’s not ok is to let these feelings prevent you from taking action.
Use temporary and specific explanations to describe bad events – temporary explanations will motivate you to put effort into fixing your problems and specificity will keep the focus of the problem on that particular event without generalizing it. Temporary and specific explanations will drive clarity and encourage problem-solving. It will enable you to take control of your situation without feeling hopeless and helpless.
By considering failures as temporary setbacks, you can stop treating them as permanent excuses to quit.
When we fail at something, it’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that we are fixing the problem by gathering all the data around our failure. Yes, that’s an important first step. But it shouldn’t be our last.
Understanding what went wrong is important, but what’s more important is to use that knowledge to take action. Most people will spend a significant amount of time analyzing the root cause of failure, while failing to put any solution into action.
Just like any good strategy requires the right tactics to give life to that strategy, every failure analysis requires a solid implementation to move forward.
Use the knowledge from your failures to your advantage to implement a new strategy, conduct a new experiment, or explore new ways of doing things. Don’t let your learning stop with acquiring knowledge, use that knowledge to turn your desires into reality.
When you make mistakes and those mistakes lead to failures, it’s easy to look for a scapegoat or adopt an attitude to cover things up. Shunning responsibility for your failure by blaming someone else or an external event beyond your control may give you temporary relief at the moment, but it does nothing to advance you in the direction of your goals.
The only way to learn from your failure is to accept your part in it first. At the same time, don’t let your failures define you. Disconnect your failure from your identity. You failed, that does not make you a failure.
Taking responsibility for your failures with the desire to move forward requires owning up to the error, understanding the mistake and identifying your shortcomings without letting them define who you are as a person or what your limits are.
As humans, we are wired to feel happy and satisfied when we feel in control of our lives. This tendency to control is useful when used positively to shape our environment and the things in it e.g. if our desire is to eat healthy, removing all unhealthy options in the house and replacing them with healthy alternatives is a great way to align our environment with what we desire.
However, the desire to control everything can be damaging when we fail to acknowledge that some circumstances are beyond our control. Unexpected events can throw us off course by taking away our sense of control over the situation.
Spending time and energy in fretting about the things we can’t control can dampen our ability to see and fix the situation that’s right in front of us. We may fail to see that while we cannot control certain things, we still have a lot of power over our choices and the decisions we make with regard to those things. Failing to succeed requires investing in those decisions instead of beating yourself up about the ones you can’t control.
Previously published here.