The Failure Challenge: Embracing Failure Grows Our Ability to Succeed

Failure is an important component of success. Here are some science-based tips on embracing failure. Authored by Susan Fant 

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Embracing failure is an incredibly difficult task. It’s the initial cringe when failure happens, no matter how small or how large you perceive a failure to be. The cringe of failure can stop us short, compelling us to reach for the broom and find a rug to sweep the failure under or to start looking for someone else to blame.

We live in a time where we fear to admit to failure. However, failure of our leaders, political systems, economy, and institutions occurs every day. “Too big to fail,” a phrase born out of the mid-2000s recession, splashed across television screens and needled its way into our minds so effectively that we now consider personal failure as an insurmountable flaw. Is anything or anyone really “too big to fail,” or are we worried that failure in any context defines our shortcomings and keeps us from future accomplishments?

Adopting a high performance mindset can redefine the cost of failure by allowing reflection and growth to reinforce the lessons that failure provides. Studies have shown that reflecting on failure can influence and improve our future and help us solve conflict. At a basic level, reflection helps us debrief and reconsider our actions. For instance, medical professionals rely heavily on reflection as a guide for high performance in disciplines where a near no-failure rate is required. Simply admitting to failure and moving forward without reflecting is ineffective. Studies suggest that multiple types of reflections take place in your mind when you make decisions every day. From reflecting on an action before it happens to reflecting on an action after it happens, our brains analyze the factors of failure and success at all times.

Failure may predict and precede our future success, but only if we use it proactively through reflection, reappraisal, and motivated reasoning. Below are steps that can help you appreciate your own failures and overcome the challenge of embracing failure.   

1. Use your growth mindset

Failure has a negative connotation that permeates our thoughts and actions. “What happens if I fail?” becomes instilled in us at a young age, typically at the moment when we understand the difference between F and A grades in school. The exception occurs when people consider their ability to learn as malleable. Dr. Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” and compared it to a fixed mindset. People use their growth mindsets when they believe they are changeable by learning and trying something new. People do not have an entirely growth or an entirely fixed mindset; instead, we have both mindsets and must try to encourage the growth mindset as much as possible. Developing a growth mindset promotes the high performance quality of resilience in your feelings as it is related to your abilities.

2. Recognize your good failures

There is a difference between good and bad failure. Many of us define failure as a horrible thing, no matter the scale or the results. In the world of entrepreneurship, business failure can happen at any stage of a new venture. Studies show that we can develop a fear of failure, and that fear gives us an “anti-failure bias.” This is a bias towards not failing, and not allowing ourselves to fail can stop us from taking risks. Much like adopting a growth mindset, we can categorize the types of failures that we experience. Many times our failure can be defined as good failure, because we took a calculated risk. We came short of the goal, we needed more help than we realized, or we needed more materials than we could access. If we can define the failure and understand how to take calculated risks then we have experienced good failure.

3. Praise the process, not your achievements   

We hear about “the process” in the context of sports, where we celebrate or commiserate en mass each touchdown and interception. This high performance concept applies to other areas of our lives. Praising the process, instead of achievement is one solution to help us embrace failure. When we uplift performance and persistence, we can accept failure as part of the process that leads us to eventual success. Preventable failures happen when we repeat failures without correcting our actions and considering how to change our next step based on what we learned from the failure. Focusing on developing the next step helps us reach our eventual goal. We can reframe our feelings to consider how each step is part of the process and every step we take towards the eventual goal will allow us to maintain the process towards a successful outcome.

4. Do not waste your failures

Admitting to failure demonstrates grace and persistence not only to ourselves but also to our friends and family, co-workers, employees, or community members. Embracing failure can certainly help you avoid the same failure in the future, but it also helps others avoid the same failure. By talking openly about our failures, we become more relatable people, who create a sense of safety in our environments for others to feel okay about taking risks and potentially failing. Becoming a failure tolerant leader allows us to create a teachable moment. Admitting to failure and openly talking about what you learned from the failure and how you overcame that failure demonstrates your growth mindset and suggests actionable strategies for others to embrace failure and do the same. Embracing those who admit to their failures allows us all to take risks to solve problems and create better solutions.

Overcoming the initial cringe from failure is a hard task that requires us to wear our missteps as a badge. We admit to being less than perfect, but we also demonstrate our ability to learn, reflect, and grow. By embracing failure, analyzing the true causes of failure, and not allowing the failure to repeat itself, we can trust our ability to succeed and reach our goals.

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