Learning How to Fail
Recently the leader of a girls’ school in England planned a “failure week.” The idea was to teach students to be willing to take risks and build their resilience, their ability to bounce back when they didn’t succeed or do well at something they tried. What a great idea.
How many of us know how to fail? Failure is a part of succeeding, especially when your goal is a difficult one to achieve. Persistence is said to be the key to success. Persistence means to keep going even when a door closes.
So what’s the difference between people who keep going and crave a challenge and those who give up?
You may have heard the story of Edison attempting to invent the light bulb. As the story goes, he tried unsuccessfully so many times, perhaps 9,999 times, that people were questioning his efforts. They asked, “you have tried so many times and every time you have failed. Why do you keep on going?” He supposedly responded with “I have not failed 9,999 times. I have successfully found 9,999 ways it won’t work. That brings me 9,999 steps closer to the way it will work.”
Our interpretation of “failure” seems to have a lot to do with our reaction to it. For some, failure at a task is the same as being a failure as a person. An action or behavior becomes about our identity. That leads to shame, a very unpleasant experience, one that leads to withdrawal and hiding form others.
It’s a judgmental way of looking at yourself. If you judge yourself by whether something you do is a success or not, then who you are depends on the outcome of your efforts, not your efforts or what you learned in the process. Your whole sense of who you are would be at stake every time you attempted a task. Growth would not enter the picture. Taking risks or learning new skills would be risky and scary if you have this view of identity.
Imagine if you could see failure as a growth experience. If you could, then facing obstacles and problems could be an opportunity instead of a disaster. Instead of feeling discouraged and hopeless when outcomes aren’t what you want, you would view the “failure” as simply the way the world is.
Develop A Growth Mindset
Carole Dweck says that people tend to have either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset would say that each time you attempt to do something it is a reflection of how smart you are, how talented you are or your character traits. Each situation defines you as a winner or a loser. A growth mindset is the belief that your basic qualities are things you cultivate through your efforts.
A growth mindset would see failure as an opportunity to learn. People with a growth mindset would welcome the feedback. One path to being willing to risk failure and pursue dreams is to develop a growth mindset and change the way you view outcomes of your efforts. This would mean practicing over and over and reminding yourself that learning from your experiences is a part of life, that failing means you are taking risks and growing as a person. This approach is like looking at failures as a time to be grateful that you are living life fully rather than playing it safe.
Another possibility to help you accept failure without judgment is to use self-compassion. Failure is a universal human experience. We’ve all failed at something in our lives and will probably fail many more times. You aren’t alone in failing at something you try to do. It’s part of being human. Failure is not a pleasant experience, so consider being compassionate with yourself, accepting your humanness, instead of judging yourself.
Change Your Focus
Consider that success is making the effort and putting in the work. Focus on what you can control, not on what you cannot. Then focus on what you learned, what you will know next time. Remember to self-validate instead of judging.
If you see failing at a task as being about who you are instead of what you do, and if you see failing as a permanent situation instead of a step on the way to success, then of course you will react negatively to failure. You will see it as a negative judgement of who you are. This leads to giving up, not wanting to take risks or learning something you don’t know, and being fearful whenever you face a problem.
Your identity could be at risk over the success of a birthday party or a dinner out with friends. Practicing seeing failure for what it is, an activity or plan that didn’t work out, can help you learn to cope in a more helpful way.
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Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
Hall, K. (2012). Learning How to Fail. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 5, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/05/learning-how-to-fail/