How To Fail, Successfully

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
― Paulo Coelho

What if I told you that the most accomplished people in history were major failures?

If you have ever tried something, you have failed. It’s one of those inevitable parts of life. Here’s the thing though- if you are doing it right, failure is not just inevitable, it is essential.

Many years ago, I remember watching a Ted Talk about failure. The speaker mentioned that we should be AIMING to fail. And not just to fail, but to fail BIGGER, more gloriously, until we learned how to fail WELL.

Back then, this was a revolutionary idea. Today, however, it’s more mainstream. The whole narrative around failure has shifted so much in this new era of self-help. As a society, we understand now that if you want to grow and progress meaningfully in life, you should become friends with failure.

However, this idea can still be difficult to digest. For many of us, failure may even seem like a luxury. After all, sometimes failing has far-reaching consequences.

In this post we will:

Examine why we all have a very personal relationship with failure

Discuss the benefits of failing gloriously

Explore how to fail and how to fail well

Let's get into it.

Failure Is A Personal Thing

Even though we all experience it, each one of us has different attitude towards failure. We can:

Fear it and work to avoid the possibility of failure at all costs

Expect it and try and create safety nets to soften the blow just in case

Welcome it, or even seek it as an important learning opportunity

Whatever your approach to failure, there is no denying that it can be very unpleasant to fail. It takes courage to try new things and take risks! When our efforts meet failure, it’s not always easy to remember that the whole point of failure it to learn.

How we deal with these moments has everything to do with our personal relationship with failure.

And our personal relationship with failure has everything to do with how we were taught to respond to setbacks and failures as children.

Learning To Fail As A Child

The childhood messaging we receive around what failure means and how to respond to it shapes how we manage setbacks as adults.

If the key adults in our childhood showed us that failure is a side effect of trying new things and growing, we are more likely to see it this way too.

If the adults in our lives demonstrated that failure is not an option, or we are harshly punished for making mistakes, we are likely to grow up fearing failure.

Story time with Sarah

In my practice, I see a lot of people who grew up with immigrant parents or are immigrants themselves.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a common theme- many of my clients with this background tend to be risk averse and have an intense fear of failing.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense!

Immigrants often make huge monetary and emotional sacrifices to start a new life in another country. They are under intense pressure to make this sacrifice worth it- everything is on the line.

For many of my clients and their families, failure was simply not an option because it meant the family (and often extended family in their country of origin) would suffer.

There are many ways this shows up in my clients’ lives:

Taking the lower-risk, immediate return option

Internalizing failure as a personal shortcoming rather than a fact of life

Fearing the possibility of failure to the point of remaining in their comfort zones

In these cases, the relationship with failure is a fear-based one. If you fail, you have done something wrong and it cannot be resolved.

Fear of failure is internalized to the point where perfectionism or a very low tolerance for uncertainty takes hold. This can be harmful for both our mental health and personal growth.

Failure Has Its Benefits

There are so many reasons to embrace failure instead of fearing it! This doesn’t mean we should always aim to fail though.

Instead, learning about failure in this way helps us make the most of it when it inevitably happens- whether we were expecting to try and fail or  to try and succeed.

Failure Builds Resilience

It’s no coincidence that the most resilient people have experienced many failures. Actually failing is the only way to learn how to bounce back from a failure. We can’t develop grit and perseverance (the ability to try and try again) any other way!

Failure Helps Us Discover The Power Of Second (And Third) Chances

Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that we only have one shot, one opportunity to get it ‘right’.

When that predictably doesn’t happen, it shows us that as long as we learn from our mistakes, the world does offer other chances. We have room to make mistakes. In fact, it’s one of the key ways we learn to choose better opportunities. By owning our failures, we make our own luck.

Failure Develops Character

Our lowest moments reveal our true strength of character. It is easier to be the best version of ourselves when life is good. When things fall apart though, it tests our determination, courage, kindness, and ability to be true to who we are.

In other words, failure shows us what we are made of (and what we are not).

Failure Reveals Who And What Really Matter

We have a tendency to push on in life without stopping to reflect on how it is affecting our relationships and aligning with our purpose.

When we fail, it reveals who will truly stand by our side and who is only there for the good times. We learn who we can trust and rely on, along with how closely we are living according to our core values.

Failure allows the dust to settle and. It provides a much-needed opportunity to step back and assess the big picture direction we are taking our lives in.

Failure Builds Compassion And Gratitude

One thing is for certain: failure is humbling.

Our compassion towards other who are struggling increases when we have failed ourselves. Failure even makes us better and more compassionate leaders because we know that taking risks and bouncing back from the losses is an important part of the process.

So How Do I Fail Well?

Glad you asked! Failure is an essential piece of the human experience. While it hurts, it is also the most guaranteed road to personal growth, as long as we are motivated to learn from our failures and apply this knowledge to other opportunities.

Here are a few tips to help make the most out of our failures.

1. The Anticipation Of Failure Is Often Worse Than Failing Itself

More often than not, the lead-up is worse than the actual thing. Remember when we did presentations in school? Kids would rush to go first to avoid feeling anxious until their turn came up.

Once we know there is no real alternative to failure, sometimes it’s best to take small risks upfront to avoid the anxious anticipation.

Do it, get it out the way- it will build your confidence and help you learn to manage failure and setbacks in small doses.

2. Visualize Failing

Part of failing well is fostering a healthy attitude towards failure in the first place. Visualizing the worst-case-scenario and then what you will do if it happens helps us feel better prepared to handle challenges.

This exercise also helps manage the fear of failing. We don't like to think about what we fear the most. If, however, we think about failing and also the solution to that dreaded moment, we take back our power.

The fear can no longer loom ominously over our heads when we can name it and also manage it!

3. Find The Lesson In The Failure

We are all going to fail at some point, so we might as well make it worth it. The whole point of failing is to learn something from it. In other words, our failures have a pay-off.

Whenever you experience failure, try and reflect on the following:

  • What skills did I learn during this process?
  • What are the 3 biggest takeaways from this experience?
  • Compare this current version of yourself to who you were a year ago- what are the changes and which ones can you apply to your next opportunity or attempt?

4. Don't Let Failure Make You Bitter

Failure can be heart breaking. It's difficult to offer yourself grace and compassion when you feel defeated.

It's important to process these emotions and not sweep them under the rug. Punching down the pain will turn it into bitterness. This may get in the way of learning from failures. Instead, it's a recipe for letting ourselves becoming defined by them.

Try and use failure as an opportunity to hit pause and deal with the things that you have been neglecting while pursuing the opportunity that did not work out.

  • Talk about your experience with trusted family and friends
  • Connect with a therapist who can help you understand and process the changes in your life
  • Remind yourself of the courage, determination, and creativity it took to try something new- you have succeeded in more ways than you know

Wrapping Up

Re-thinking how we respond to failure is an important part of success! I hope this post inspired you to see failure as the friend that is tough on you, but truly cares about your well being and direction in life.

I want to hear from you: How have you bounced back from some of your greatest failures? What lessons did you learn along the way?

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services