How to embrace the science of failing spectacularly

When we think of the most successful people — from talented, gutsy entrepreneurs to executives at the top companies — we often forget about the path that led them to thought leadership.

Or more to the point: the vast amount of failures they had to endure and overcome along the way. To name a few: Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 prototypes in 15 years before he created the bagless vacuum cleaner. His former newspaper editor told Walt Disney that he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas.’ Dr. Seuss, the children’s book author, was rejected by 27 publishers. The icon Oprah Winfrey got her first job as an anchor in Baltimore but was fired. And there are countless other stories, just like these — and perhaps, just like yours. 

The trick with failing is to do it spectacularly. This means taking all that we can from the experience, learning, and moving forward on our professional journey. 

Here, experts share a few ways we can do just that:

See it as your worst fear realized

We all have that big, huge, scary anxiety that’s built up inside of us. This thing would be the worst case scenario, leaving us penniless and hopeless. Here’s the deal: if that does happen, it happens. And then you get to recover and rebound from it, so it’s no longer a fear.

As Conan O’Brien once shared, he experienced a profound and public disappointment. He didn’t get what he wanted, so he left a system that nurtured him and turned away. “I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on. Lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table, supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy,” he shared. 

However, in the process, he also had a ton of fun and he was able to challenge himself in a profound way. “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized. It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique,” he explains. “It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.”

Identify — and break — unhealthy patterns

When we set out in one direction, hit a roadblock, and must pivot, we’re forced to figure out what happened. This is a positive benefit of failing since it teaches us what psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., calls ‘gleaming the wisdom.’ As she defines, this is when we challenge ourselves to derive lessons from mistakes so we can identify and break unhealthy patterns. “It is not easy to face your failures. Since there is no understanding of why the poor result happened, nor changes made to decrease or prevent the likelihood of future failures, it’s likely to happen again,” she continues. “However, if you recognize that the short-term discomfort of facing your failures and learning from them can help produce more effective outcomes with new pursuits, you break the cycle.” 

You discover your risk tolerance

One of the most life-changing questions you can yourself is relatively simple: How much are you willing to fail in order to succeed? You can’t have one without the other, and when we plummet, we have to come face-to-face with our risk tolerance.

As Erica Lee, the CEO of Marquis Who’s Who puts it, failures force you to think about whether your goal is worth it. “Failure causes introspection; that much is irrefutable. Within the thought stream of questions and doubt, there should also be a realization,” she explains. “Failure, if you are truly passionate about what you do, only hardens your resolve. Stagnation is not growth, and growth only comes from risks — the risk of failure, to be precise. You will never discover the grit and determination it takes to pick yourself up again.”

You snap out of cruise control

There are periods of life that are naturally slower than others. Say, for instance, a global pandemic where you are forced to remain indoors and determine new ways of staying motivated and remaining afloat. Other times are after your first child’s birth or the first two months of a new job, as you learn the ropes. But if you have significant aspirations for yourself, remaining in cruise control doesn’t allow for the progression needed to become an effective, successful leader.

As Dr. Thomas says, failing snaps us out of complacency, serving as a reminder to be more aware and proactive. “If you can see the failure as a way to kick-start more focus, commitment, and energy towards improving your life, you can use the failure as a way to achieve success in the future,” she continues. “In psychology terms, this is called ‘reframing’ in which you can see a situation in a more positive perspective rather than only viewing it negatively.”

You learn patience and courage

Sometimes failing happens through a process of trial and error. We apply for one opportunity, get rejected, but a mentor recommends a new one. We test out a resume format, and it bombs. We attempt to start our own company, but the economy tanks, and we’re back to square one. Very few people have all of their dreams come true overnight, in a week, in a month, or even in a decade. This is why failure teaches us the invaluable lesson of patience, according to Tiffany Sorya, an education expert and Novel Education founder. And this means giving grace to ourselves, to others, to the moment and to the process.

Then, after patience comes courage. “While failing can be upsetting, its life-altering lessons make us into better people. It keeps you humble and encourages you not to take things personally,” she shares. “You are not defined by your failures, but by how you respond to them.”