Failure is often presented as the worst case scenario – and a personal reflection of how we come up short. This series explores what failure really is, why we expect it to make us feel bad, and how we can benefit from experiencing failure. You will learn tips to help you welcome failure into your life – and how to maximize your learning and growth along the way.
The ability to fail, and then persevere, over and over again is often noted as one of the most common attributes of successful people. Winston Churchill said “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. But how you do protect yourself against the loss of enthusiasm when facing failure? Redefining failure, and reassigning the emotions we associate failure is where to start.
What is Failure?
Most people view failure as a personal reflection of their shortcoming or a demonstration of lack of ability. This leads to thoughts of disappointment, self doubt, guilt and apathy. But the definition of failure according to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary states failure is an “omission of occurrence” or “a state of inability to perform normal function”.
Failure to me includes any (or all!) of the following:
- Not meeting expectations: either expectations you set for yourself, or expectations that are imposed on you by others
- A call for change: failure is a great feedback tool that something is not working.
- An opportunity for change: failure can often provide the room needed for growth, a pivot or redirect.
When we look at these definitions of failure we see that successful people often “fail” much more regularly than unsuccessful people. This is because they are taking risks, trying new ways of doing things, redirecting their time and energy, and collecting feedback to empower change.
Why does failure make us feel so bad?
To welcome failure into your life – you need to examine the emotions you have assigned to failure in the past through conditioned responses. Can you think of a time in your life when you failed? Often there are experiences from early adolescence that stand out in our memories. These particular moments of failure tend to shape our perceptions going forward. You may have felt embarrassment, shame or vulnerability in this moment. Over time your feelings may have grown to include questions about self worth and anxiety around measuring up. It can be very freeing to look back on this event – and see where your thoughts around failure originated. Would you feel the same way in that situation now?
Failure itself is extremely subjective, it doesn’t actually make you feel a certain way – but your thoughts about failure certainly will. Failure is an objective fact that is arguably inevitable. The thoughts and emotions (or the subjective experience) are avoidable. Changing your conceptualization of failure helps to change your experience.
Make a conscious decision to look at failures as a learning experience, and an opportunity for personal growth. I think failure is something that we should embrace as we are living a journey to discovering our best selves.
The Two Types of Failure
You can fail in two very different ways:
- Failing to Try: This includes never getting started, setting low (or no) expectations, and designing situations that promote self sabotage. If you find you are failing in these ways take some time to examine why this is your approach. Typically these action patterns originate in issues around value and self worth. You will not grow by repeating failures of these natures. In fact, you will most likely reinforce these negative thought patterns and do more harm than good. Take a moment to reflect on your actions and see if you might be falling into this category before continuing.
- Trying and Failing: This is where you show up to the best of your ability, but don’t experience the expected results. This is where true learning and growth can take place as you challenge yourself through the process of failure and re-attempt.
How we avoid failure:
There are so many ways to avoid failure, below are a list of the most common mechanisms and some tips on how to overcome them:
Planning: High achievers tend to hide behind “perfectionism” and over-planning. It’s easy to never get started when you are busy organizing and controlling every detail. But hiding behind this smoke screen of productivity only hurts you in the long run.
- The Fix: Start off by setting up experiments for yourself, where you don’t have control over the outcome. See how things play out and how you feel – gradually increasing the stakes as you take on more unknowns.The key here is to start doing rather than procrastinating through planning and research.
Confusion (Or lack of Clarity): Others might employ confusion to help them avoid failure. If you find yourself saying you don’t know how, or just aren’t sure where to start, you might be avoiding failure. This is often an inward approach, as you convince yourself you just don’t know how to move forward.
- The Fix: Ask yourself this question: if someone paid you $100,000 to get started, would you know where to begin? Make the stakes high enough that you move past your confusion into choice.
Indecision: Similar to confusion, is indecision. It’s really difficult to decide to take a risk, and there are so many good reasons to stay in your comfort zone. However using indecision to hide from failure is just another coping technique.
- The Fix: Ask yourself, if you did know - what would you choose? What would an outsider looking at your situation suggest? If you indecision comes from a lack of information, where can you find the resources you need to move forward?
No Expectations: Some people avoid failure by setting low, or no, expectations. They remove any expectations all together to avoid disappointment, rejection and failure. Sadly this can also remove moments of accomplishment, happiness and celebration, a very high price to pay.
- The Fix: Take a moment to look at the worst case scenario for a given situation. Is it really as bad as you thought? What are the chances of this actually happening? Do the same with the best case scenario. How would your life change if that was the case? Finally picture the most possible outcome. Is that a good space for you to operate in? Commit to setting your expectations between the most possible outcome (which is also the most likely) and the best case scenario. At least if you don’t achieve it, you will have had some fun dreaming up that ideal situation!
Failure is an opportunity for growth and learning. If you can become aware of your feelings around failure, and start to notice any patterns you take to avoid failure, you are well on your way to making a big change. Continue to explore failure by looking for inspiration in people you know, or celebrities you admire. Research how they failed, and what they did as a result. Try an experiment, where failure is a possibility – and notice how you act.
Be sure to check back on Thursday for Part 2 of the Personal Growth Series: How to Accept Failure for tips and tricks on how to make the most out of the failure you experience in your life.
I would love to hear about the biggest failure you have experienced in your life - and how you handled it. Would you do anything differently looking back? Leave a comment below!