Failure will hurt more than you think. Here’s how to learn from it anyway
There’s a reason why the Pursuit of Happiness—the true story starring Will Smith about a down-on-his-luck salesman and single dad who finds his way to the top—was a hit. We like to romanticize failure. We root for the underdog at the movies, and we revere the billionaire who started as a college dropout. From a distance, failure seems noble. But in reality, it’s painful and messy.
But failure is connected with success. While most research is judicious in saying it makes (only) correlations between data, a new Northwestern University study found causal connections between failure and success. In researching 1,184 grant applications with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it found those who stuck it out after failure ultimately had a higher likelihood of success. While a small percentage dropped out after failing to receive funding, those who stayed the course after a failure saw a 6% increase in success.
The messiness of failure
But despite the lofty notions about failure and its dignity, the truth is, it hurts to fail. It’s hard, painful, and often messy, and tears and sniffles might also be involved. At best, failure can feel like a waste of time. At worst, it can feel like a personal indictment. Failure can cause you to regroup, retrench, or backup.
It can also cost money and time (like the new suit you bought for the interview or the move you made to the city for the job that didn’t last). It can cause you to course correct (the meeting went sideways, and now you need to rethink the project). Failure can make you question yourself—who you are and what you’re good at. This is what makes it messiest of all.
How do you get through the turmoil that can come from failure. Here are six tips:
1. Remind yourself failure isn’t about you as a person
Failure is about a skill or capability you can build. Take a growth mindset where you don’t look at your talent as a stagnant set but as something you can develop, nurture, and strengthen. Changing course is a typical response to failure (after all, some of the subjects did), but if you stick with something and continue trying, it can pay big dividends down the line.
2. Accept it
Your failure might have been due to things outside of your control. The system might have also worked against you. But rather than dwelling on those things, you need to focus on how you had a role to play in your failure.
The idea that you learn lessons by failing might seem like a cliché to you, but it’s familiar because it’s right. Learning from success is less automatic—you may be so busy celebrating and taking steps forward, you forget to reflect. Failure provides you with the opportunity to learn and consider how you can strengthen your game for the next go, even if it’s under unfavorable conditions.
3. Tell yourself the try was worth the effort
It’s frustrating to think you may have wasted your time—on the job you didn’t get or the client you didn’t win. You might think of the effort you made as a sunk cost. But you’ll be miles ahead if you consider the work you did as an investment in your process. Perhaps it strengthened your team by coming together for the big client meeting or, you developed stronger stamina based on the hard work you put in.
4. Share your pain
Sometimes, sharing your challenges can be a helpful way to build connections. Rather than always putting on a happy face and serving up platitudes, open up to trusted colleagues. They may have advice. What’s more, demonstrating vulnerability enables you to build relationships.
5. Embrace growth
What doesn’t break you makes you stronger is another tried-and-true mantra about failure. If you’re doing it right, you’ll gain resourcefulness, resilience, and perseverance from failure. These are all excellent skills to have and characteristics that will make life more rewarding.
6. Focus on the future
If you fail, you’ll want to take a breath, step back, and reflect on your lessons learned. You do, however, have to be ready to move forward. Make a point to find your next inspiration—from someone else who has failed, from a story that inspires you, or from the next opportunity that motivates you. Keep facing forward. As my boss says, “Run toward the fire.” Stay in the game; don’t give up, and give the next possibility your best efforts.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.