If you’ve ever put off doing something because you weren’t sure how it would turn out, or if you’ve avoided a new experience because you didn’t want to risk messing up in front of others, then you’ve experienced the fear of failure. This self-sabotaging belief holds back more people than you might think. Having high self-confidence doesn’t make one exempt. Rather, people are usually afraid to fail because they believe failure is socially unacceptable.
When I was rejected from a master’s program I wanted, I was devastated, but also embarrassed to tell anyone I’d been rejected or even let on how disappointed I felt. In hindsight, I had probably underprepared for the interview. But at the time, I was terrified that this failure meant I was incompetent and, therefore, less than. I wondered if it was a sign that I could never succeed at my choice of career. My interpretation about the failure stopped me dead in my tracks. Instead of beefing up my portfolio, honing my interviews, or looking for another program, I gave up and accepted the low hanging fruit that was my second-choice program.
Is failure as socially awkward as we imagine? In the midst of fear, there’s something we forget and it’s that everyone fails. We’ve all just gotten good at hiding it. But fail enough times and you start to realize it doesn’t kill you. In fact, it becomes your best, albeit harshest, teacher. To glean valuable lessons from failure requires a shift in perspective.
Here are some ways to reframe failure.
1. See failure as feedback.
When we view failure as a setback, we miss the lesson embedded in it. Failure is not part of some force sent to sabotage our success. Rather, it’s a consequence that can occur within a feedback loop. If an action we take produces an undesired outcome, it would be foolish to dismiss that outcome as “just a setback” and double down on the same action that got us that result in the first place. Instead, we would do well to take failure as a cue that something about our approach needs to change. That was how Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb.
When asked how it felt to fail so many times, he replied, “I haven’t failed, I have found 1,000 ways that don’t work.”
What the world sees as failure might just be a sign that something needs tweaking.
2. See failure as progress.
Many people have a very linear perspective on life. They view progress as a straight line toward the ideal. That means they equate failure with backsliding. This is a detrimental attitude, because it makes us feel like any progress we’d made is now lost. The underlying story we tell ourselves with this view of failure is that we have to be perfect. This is the most disempowering thing we could think because it leaves no room for growth. Failure is our best teacher, and we’d miss out on incredible growth if we never failed.
3. See failure as transformative.
In every good story, the protagonist has to fail. If the main character never failed, we’d lose interest within a few chapters. When I first learned the basics of plot structure in third grade, my classmates and I were instructed to write at least three failures into the plot before the protagonist ultimately succeeded. Without failure, there is no character arc, no transformation. I think our lives are the same way.
Failure can be an important mirror to our true strengths. If you keep failing at something, it might be a sign that you’re not drawing energy from your strengths. Maybe you’re just doing it because you think “you should,” or there is external expectation to do it. Perhaps something you’re doing, something you are perfectly capable of changing, is not working. Sometimes failure confronts us with our imperfections. We all have imperfections, and it’s usually a better use of our energy to outsource our imperfections so we can focus on our strengths, rather than strive to do everything perfectly.
Now it’s your turn. Grab a pen and notebook, or open a word document on your computer, and journal about the following questions:
- Recall a recent failure you experienced. How did it feel to fail? How did you handle it? How realistic was your response?
- What did you learn from this failure about yourself or what wasn’t working?
- What beliefs or expectations, if any, were challenged?
- Do you focus more on avoiding failure, or pursuing excellence in what you love?
- When you experience failures or setbacks, are you hard on yourself? Why or why not? How can you reframe future failures so that they work in your favor?