It seems like we have two options in life: succeed or fail. Get what you worked for and you’re a success. Fall short of that, and you’re a failure. We think about these two outcomes as if they were binary.
But maybe it’s time we rethink failure. That is, how we can use failure to provide advantages that we might not gain otherwise.
Here are four of the most important ways.
1. Use the emotions from failure to become stronger
Failure seems to imply that nothing is gained. Hours of work and energy have been put into an endeavor, but the output is zero. At least, that’s what it looks like from the outside.
Looking within ourselves, however, might give us a new perspective on failing. Throughout our lives, we learn about the ingredients to succeed: diligence, strategy, and self-confidence, amongst other things. What about qualities gained by dealing with failure?
Author David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character:
“We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”
Brooks points out how notable leaders needed to face internal struggles in order “to climb to the heights of character.” Only the harsh lessons of failure helped them understand their limitations and become stronger for it. For instance, Labor activist Frances Perkins learned the importance of self-restraint in order to further a bigger cause.
If we take the time to reflect on how we feel during difficult times, we might find that we understand ourselves and the people around us better.
2. Reframe failure to motivate yourself
In psychology, there’s a term called cognitive reappraisal, which is a way of changing our emotions during a stressful situation. When we regulate negative emotions, we’re better able to cope with difficult events and reduce feelings of depression.
For instance, after you’ve been turned down from an interview or client proposal, the first response is probably going to be sadness or confusion. Your life might feel like it’s come to a standstill. But if you start thinking of the situation as a test or an experiment, you become more forward-thinking.
As Winston Churchill said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Instead of seeing failure as the end of the road, try to see it as an inevitable part of the journey to improving yourself. Maybe what you wanted isn’t the right fit for you, so failure is a way of opening yourself up to better opportunities.
3. Look at failure as a lesson
Many people have a tendency to shy away from failure. It gets swept under the carpet or avoided altogether. But if left unattended, small failures can snowball into large failures.
For example, dismissing someone else’s ideas once can lead to a mediocre result. Constantly ignoring the feedback of others over and over again can create a culture of mistrust and lack of communication, which leads to a toxic environment. So how do we stop unhealthy behaviors in their tracks?
Researchers Mark Cannon and Amy Edmondson found that in an organization, everyday failures can serve as ‘early warning signs’. If detected and addressed early, catastrophic failures can be prevented.
In one example, the CEO of a company pulled out a $450 ‘mistake’ out of the dumpster, mounted it on a plaque, and organized a presentation ceremony. The winner, initially embarrassed, eventually took pride in how his mistake helped prevent future similar mistakes from happening.
From a personal perspective, this means opening yourself to failure. Instead of shifting the blame and pretending nothing happened, acknowledge that a mistake occurred and see it as a learning opportunity. Ask yourself: “What can I take away from this experience? How can I improve for the next time?” If you view failures positively, you can start moving yourself in the right direction.
4. Apply the skills from your previous failure
Showing up early, putting in the work, and being the last to leave doesn’t guarantee the results you want. As harsh as it sounds, sometimes wanting something badly enough doesn’t mean you’ll get it.
Someone I knew (let’s call him John) wanted to play hockey professionally. From an early age, he woke up every morning in the cold, winter darkness for hockey practice. When he reached university, he joined the major junior hockey league.
Hockey consumed his life. All his friends were from the hockey team. His days were largely spent either in practice, or on the road competing against other teams. But when he reached his senior year, he quit. John realized he wasn’t good enough to go professional. As much as it hurt, he decided to head off to business school.
Failure stings. When you put years of your life into something only to hit a roadblock, it feels like a waste of time. But if channeled wisely, those skills from a failure can be applied to something else.
In John’s case, he couldn’t put what he learned into becoming a hockey player. But he could apply those same principles of discipline, teamwork, and time management into growing personally and professionally in business school. John eventually found a position working as a consultant in a global company, where he used those hard-earned skills from his previous life as a hockey player.
In the process of working towards an outcome, we train ourselves to think and act in certain ways. Regardless of whether you reach success or failure, you still carry those skills –and it’s that learning process which shapes the person you become.