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How Embracing Failure Can Lead to Success

A Q&A with Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and author of the forthcoming book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.

Thrive Global: Why is failure one of the most valuable experiences we can have in life?

Ellen Hendrickson: Failure is life’s most effective teacher. Failure teaches us at least three things. First, we learn about the content of our craft, whether that’s corporate strategy, frosting wedding cakes, or making basketball free-throws. When we fail, we’re able to see in hindsight what went wrong and learn from those mistakes. We recalibrate and come out of it knowing first-hand what works and what doesn’t. It’s the wisdom that comes from experience.

Second, we learn about ourselves. We learn how resilient we can be. We learn that we’re scrappy or creative or flexible, and we carry those lessons with us. From experiencing failure, we know that when we dig deep, we find a well of inner strength.

But finally—and most importantly—failure teaches us about the process of failure itself. We learn that failure is temporary—it’s not an end; it’s a stopover. And this revelation turns fear of failure on its head. Why? When we fear failure, we picture all the ways our endeavor could end badly—we imagine the “F” on our term paper, the moment when our boss fires us, or the rejection slip for our great American novel. It’s as if we have a horror movie running in our head, and we press “pause” at the worst moment—the equivalent of when the shower curtain is pulled back and the knife glints. But we forget that the movie keeps going. We forget that the next scenes of our personal movie would be of us picking ourselves up and moving on. We’d study harder, start fresh at a new job, or send out the manuscript to three new publishers.

Most of us are afraid to fail, which makes perfect sense—failing hurts. But once we actually fail, and then dust ourselves off and try again, we learn that failure is a temporary state. It’s just a stage we go through, and if we can tolerate that temporary feeling of incompetence and insecurity, and see it not as the end of the line, but a point on a much longer line, we become less afraid and more willing to try new things.

TG: How can we get better at embracing failure at work?

EH: Bouncing back from a failure is called resilience, and the crucial thing to remember about resilience is that it’s a skill, not a you-have-it-or-you-don’t trait. So failure implies a chance to practice and strengthen your resilience. Employees who have failed, but then come back and create something stronger, are truly valuable. A second piece of advice I’d give about failure at work is counterintuitive: when you fail, give yourself permission to feel lousy, at least privately or with trusted colleagues. True resilience isn’t about swallowing your pain and pretending everything is peachy—you’re human, not a machine, and getting knocked down hurts. But the crucial part is, after nursing your wounds, you get up again. That’s resilience.

I think failure at work could benefit from a makeover. It can be reframed as being unafraid to learn in public. It can be reframed as knowing that you can handle whatever the job throws at you. It can be reframed as thinking big and giving your best effort, especially when success isn’t guaranteed.

TG: What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to bounce back from a failure?

EH: Failing is disorienting and can make you feel like you’ve been knocked for a loop. But a handful of studies have found that having a moral compass—an internal system of values and ethics—goes along with higher resilience. Why? A strong internal belief system is powerfully linked to having a purpose in life, and that’s the key to bouncing back. In other words, you have a fire in your belly. But what fuels it? What is your purpose? Maybe you’re passionate about a particular cause. Maybe you have a strong religious faith. Maybe you know the reason you’re on this planet is to help others. Uncover your purpose and you can bounce back from pretty much anything. 

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