July 12, 2019

Our society loves to talk about embracing failure. “Failure’s part of the process! Embrace it! Love it!” success stories urge from Twitter and the covers of magazines.

But when you’re staring failure in the face (or watching the aftermath of a spectacular misstep) you may start to realize something: We are a culture which worships success.

There’s no Forbes list for people who fail before they’re 30. There are no news stories about entrepreneurs who almost hit it big, people who hustled their butts off and didn’t make it work.

Sure, people toss a few likes to an Instagram post about someone’s struggle, but nothing rakes in the engagement like a proposal, or news of a flashy new job, or a beaming graduation picture.

Being told to embrace failure is like your parents telling you to eat your vegetables as they themselves gorge on dessert: If it’s such good advice, wouldn’t they be following it?

But while society seems determined to celebrate success and only success, it turns out that there’s something to that whole “failure is good” idea.

A 2010 study found that while lessons learned from successes were fleeting, the takeaways from failures were more likely to stick. “There is a tendency in organizations to ignore failure or try not to focus on it,” wrote study author Vinit Desai. “Managers may fire people or turn over the entire workforce while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity."

The same goes for you as a person. Your first instinct after a failure may be to get rid of the evidence or reroute entirely, when treating your missteps as a chance to learn might be the better option.

Below, how to roll with your failures in a world that says otherwise.

Recognize that everybody fails—and study up on a few famous disasters.

You know that Einstein developed the theory of relativity and Marie Curie practically discovered science, but do you know what they tried that didn’t work out?

A 2016 study had a group of 9th and 10th graders read about successful scientists. Half the group learned about those scientists’ successes and failures, while the rest of the students learned only about the successes.

Those who learned about the good and the bad were more likely to show improved learning afterward than those who learned about just the wins. They were also more likely to identify with the scientists they learned about, feeling that they, too, could be successful despite difficulties.

The next time you strike out, read up on a personal hero. Maybe you learn that your favorite author was dealt 29 rejections before finally landing a book deal, or that a must-watch actress almost quit before her big break.

Putting someone’s wins and losses in perspective can help you do the same with your own.

Make a list of what you’ve learned.

What would you do differently if you were to make a repeat attempt?

Would you start studying for your test sooner?

Ask for help before you were in over your head?

Those shoulda-woulda-couldas aren’t lingering on the past—they’re all lessons you’ve learned from your stumble.

Take a look at what went wrong and how you might right it on your next try. It’s how you grow from failure that matters, so make sure you use missteps as a learning experience.

Switch up your language.

When I swing and miss, I tend to get pretty hyperbolic. “I’m done,” I wail to my boyfriend. “I’ll never get another chance like this again.”

My reactions aren’t just dramatic—they can actually keep me from my goals.

One report found that large numbers of students initially interested in STEM careers stepped back after failing a test, or finding the material to be hard—minor road bumps that turned into final stops.

Failing grades, frustration, confusion, and other negative experiences can lead to quitting, when, in reality, they're just a sign that something needs to shift.

Instead of saying you’re done, or will never make it, or just don’t have what it takes, try, “that didn’t work.”

Failed your first attempt at a licensure exam? That didn’t work.

Boss didn’t go for your big pitch? That didn’t work.

Reframing your failures as missed attempts in need of rerouting, rather than the end of the road, can stave off that urge to quit.

Reframing your failures as missed attempts in need of rerouting, rather than the end of the road, can stave off that urge to quit.

Let yourself get upset.

Personally, I love to be right. Let me rephrase that: I need to be right. When I fail at something, I feel an instant wave of shame. I was supposed to be right, and I wasn’t. Now what?

For years, my response was to shove it away, to ignore the shame and frustration and just throw myself into whatever comes next. But soon, I’d find myself making the same mistakes. Eventually I’d quit that new path, ending up right back where I started.

Disrupt the cycle by letting yourself experience the bummer that is failure. Validating those emotions will keep them from dragging you back down in the future, while taking time to mourn can help you understand what to do differently next time.

The key isn’t to get so good that you avoid failure—it’s to get good at rolling with it.

Remember: The key isn’t to get so good that you avoid failure—it’s to get good at rolling with it.

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