Can anyone reading these words say that they have not experienced failure?
Our Fear of Failing
A research center at Columbia University, headed by Xiaodong Lin-Siegler and dedicated entirely to the study of failure, finds that “Many kids today see failure as inherently bad, and success as beyond their reach.” Youth have grown increasingly judgmental of themselves–and quick to quit–when they struggle with or fail at a new skill.
The study hypothesizes that recent decades of helicopter parenting (something that, in my view, has advanced into a frightening level of parent-centric, phobia-inducing, “drone parenting“) has blocked children’s ability to develop independence and resilience.
Startups and Entrepreneurs
“Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.” ― Soichiro Honda
No one in the professional arena experiences failure more deeply and often than visionaries who open a new restaurant, launch a company, or invest in a money-making scheme.
Makes you wonder why these entrepreneurs–most of whom work extraordinarily long and hard–even try. However, if their venture falters, they can always point to a lack of funding or market factors as reasons beyond their control. Personal failure stems more obviously from, well, ourselves.
The Social Pressure To Be Perfect
Moreover, I believe that even though we relish the notion of famous people failing (see “You’re in Good Company,” below), our society treats both personal and professional failure as absolutely taboo. We fictionalize our social-media personas to appear that all is well, and this striving for an unrealistic appearance of “perfection” spills over into our personal conversations–even our closest relationships.
Example one: a longtime colleague and friend (a very good-looking man) remarked to me on a Zoom call just this week that he avoids looking at himself in the mirror, presumably so as not face his encroaching wrinkles and gray hair.
Example two: I’m also guilty of trying to convey a healthy/whole/hair-brushed image on my social media. While I do pride myself on wearing realistic old tee-shirts and hair scrunchies on video calls with family and coworkers, you’d better believe I use a fill-light when recording my new TikTok videos!
Each of us individually, as well as all of us culturally, suffers when we do not normalize our flaws, mistakes, and failures by bringing them out into the light. Just as we cannot hope to move toward racial, gender, religious, accessibility, and economic equity without admitting our culpability openly–and then listening to others and learning from our errors–we cannot evolve from failure to achievement unless we own the process.
Owning My Own Failures
Something I did when my children were little (that I perceived as honest but actually backfired) was to tell my children almost every day that I made mistakes.
Pointing out my errors, lack of knowledge, and shortage of skills in many arenas, I meant only to model being human . . . but it resulted in their having a poor opinion of me as a parent and a person. So, bear with me when I tell you that writing this section makes me a little skittish . . .
The truth is that I have failed in almost every way possible, both personally and professionally.
For example, I’ve received hundreds of rejections from publishers, been scorned (or flaked on) by hundreds of romantic prospects/partners, been at turns too indulgent or distracted with my children, failed to protect people I loved from abuse, contributed to a failed marriage, borne anger and resentment toward people I claim to love, insisted I was right when I was literally, factually wrong, and even failed at healing from past failings through my inability to release self-recrimination and guilt.
I’ll spare you the gory details.
Perhaps you, too, have failed in some ways, even if you have the self-discipline of an Olympian trainer.
Life without Failure?
“It may be necessary to encounter defeats, so you can know who you are, and what you can rise from.” ― Maya Angelou
Maybe, just maybe, life would be boring if we didn’t fail?
Certainly, our days would roll past with a smug sense of accomplishing all we set out to do; and maybe, as mega-bestselling Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (who also received rejections under a few pen names before hitting her stride) famously said:
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all; in which case, you fail by default.”
How Failing Hurts Us
Failing at a goal, reports Psychology Today, can have adverse effects on how we perceive that goal:
- The goal seems less attainable
- We see our abilities as diminished
- We may feel helpless
- We can begin to fear future failings
- We can sabotage future opportunities
- We can transmit fear of failure to our loved ones
- We can develop performance anxiety
What Transforms Losers into Winners
“You always pass failure on your way to success.” ― Mickey Rooney
“Every winner begins as a loser,” says Daschun Wang, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, who led a study along with Yian Yin of venture-capital startup investments on what it takes to succeed in any field. Wang’s team made two discoveries:
- Not every failure leads to success, and
- It’s not persistence that creates “winners”–it’s learning from past mistakes and working smarter rather than harder.
Also, time is NOT on your side: The sooner you fail, the better your chances at future successes, but the longer you wait to try again, the more your luck lessens.
Failing actually has its upside. As Robert Kanaat says in Wanderlust Worker:
“Without failure, we’d be less capable of compassion, empathy, kindness, and great achievement; we would be less likely to reach for the moon and the stars.”
Getting Back Up Again
“Personal Excellence” blogger Celes offers the above infographic to remind us of the key role that failures play in building toward success. She stresses:
“Failure is part and parcel of success.
Failure is where we learn about ourselves and ways that don’t work.
Failure is where we become more intelligent and gain more experience and understand the gaps in our skills.
Failure is where we move closer to success.”
Ways to Overcome the Shame
Life-Coach Walid writes about personal failure in his blog and offers pragmatic ways to overcome the shame and depression that can accompany it, including:
- Find someone who’s experienced a similar mistake.
- Remind yourself that you’ve overcome adversity in your past and can do it again.
- Make a list of your past and current successes.
- Admit your mistake, and apologize for it.
- Ask for advice from a mentor, counselor, role model, or friend.
- Plan your next step(s) and how you will do things differently next time.
Remember, You’re in Good Company
It also might help to read about–or even post pictures of–influencers who experienced rejection and failure en route to achieving impact on our world.
Specifically geared toward careers, this list of fifty people who experienced professional failure before becoming famous may inspire you to keep trying. And if you’re an oft-rejected writer, like me, you might take comfort in reading this list of bestselling authors whose work initially got the boot.
If you prefer audio, check out this podcast (one of the top 25 on iTunes) by Ozan Varol called “Famous Failures.”
12 Ways to Defeat Failure
My suggestions for twelve ways to defeat failure in your own work and personal life:
- Engage: Admit that failing is part of being human, part of getting out of bed and engaging in life.
- Manage: Manage the factors that are within your control, such as preparing for a meeting, researching a new project, proofing your report, and giving yourself breaks to replenish your mind and body.
- Break it down: Break your goal into small, achievable pieces. You even can add small chunks of time to your calendar, or have your device alert you when it’s time to shut it down for today.
- Just do it: Avoid “analysis paralysis:” just take action. Tell yourself that you will get there, even if you have to unravel the knitting and repeat some stitches tomorrow.
- Ignore the outcome: Try to take it all in stride, as did legendary NFL coach Don Shula, who said, “I didn’t get consumed by losses, and I didn’t get overwhelmed by successes.”
- Be open: Listen more than you speak, to gain insight into the experiences of your coworkers/siblings/friends and avoid repeating their mistakes, and to gain their ownership in your project. Be open to advice.
- Get focused: Do what you can to remove distractions.
- Reward yourself: Build small rewards for yourself along the way–a walk outside, a bubble bath, a favorite food–and a significant one for completing a challenging task, no matter the apparent outcome.
- Take the long view: Think of success not as an immediate event but a progressive outcome over time as you gradually discover how to achieve it.
- See the opportunity: Shift your syntax: instead of saying,”I failed,” say, “I am learning.”
- Give it 2X time: Realize that everything in life takes far longer than we initially expect.
- Be gentle with yourself: Let the voice inside your head sound like your best friend, grandma, lover, or whoever in your life has had the fiercest faith in you.
Do What’s Counter-Intuitive
If your failure has knocked you down, decimated your identity, and threatened your mental health, this is a critical time to do exactly what may feel counter-intuitive: REACH OUT! Talk about how you’re feeling with someone who you can trust to be your champion.
If possible, reach down below this circumstance to the root of what you were trying to accomplish, and why. You may discover other ways to move toward your goal once you allow your vision to expand beyond this job, relationship, or project.
As author and life-coach Blaž Kos says in an excellent article about overcoming personal failure,
- Believe in yourself, and
- Have a big vision and powerful why (your why eats any obstacle for breakfast)!
And may all your failures lead you ultimately toward peace, wisdom, and even joy.
Cover image courtesy of Mick Haupt for Unsplash.