In our culture where productivity is held to a higher standard than skill development, many of us have adapted a kind of sensitivity to failure. In our workplace, in our homes, in our personal life…we try to avoid failure at all cost. We put on a facade when we’re around others, an image of confidence even when inside we’re unsure of ourselves or the situation we’re facing. Or we avoid situations and activities altogether, afraid we might be exposed for our weaknesses, and by doing so miss out on the opportunity to grow and foster new relationships.
Look how we treat people who fail in the public eye. A preacher falls, an athlete gets caught doping, an actor gets a divorce. The media captures it all in their pursuit to find the next scandal.
But failure is a part of life. None of us are born perfect. None of us are born with an immediate access to infinite knowledge. We are designed to grow, to adapt and to learn, and failure is the glue that makes that process work.
How many times does a child fall down while learning to walk? How many words are mispronounced while learning how to read?
Every person who finds success has failed miserably along the way. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is how they manage themselves through failure.
How you manage failure will either allow you to grow or it will hold you back. You are in control. And when you take control, your circumstances can no longer define your future.
Here are a few ways highly successful people handle failure:
Accept that you will fail.
When you accept the possibility of failure, you take the pressure off of yourself to succeed at all cost. There is humility in this, and our culture often views humility as weakness. But this is your strength. Many who have walked before you have failed miserably. You are not alone in this. Stay humble.
Now I should mention that I’m not talking about self-abasement here. This isn’t about beating yourself up every time your fall down. That’s a dangerous road that only leads to a cycle of deeper discouragement. I see this with our children who get frustrated when they can’t do something they are trying to master, like riding a bike. The inclination is to throw the bike down in anger and scream. In a way that part is okay, as long as you pick the bike back up and try again.
Addiction also leads to self-loathing, but addiction is rooted in biology and is different from the kind of failure I’m talking about here. If you are wrestling with addiction of any kind, the best thing to do is seek professional help. There are things we are not capable of dealing with on our own, and its okay to reach out for help when necessary.
Don’t blame others.
Blaming others for our own failures is a defense mechanism designed to protect the fragile ego. It’s a kind of victim mentality that often hinders people from growing out of their situation. Remember, every failure is an opportunity to learn, and if we deflect our failures onto someone else we are only condemning ourselves to become stagnant.
Accept responsibility for yourself. Admit that you messed up. Don’t blame someone else for your mistakes.
This is especially important if you are a leader in your workplace, where you have other people reporting to you. I’ve seen too many bosses blame their employees for failures that lead right back up the chain of command. There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. And bad leaders blame others for mistakes.
For a great example of taking ownership as a leader, check out Jocko Willink’s TED Talk on Extreme Ownership
This is a lesson I’m working on teaching my sons. If you mess up and it affects someone else, you need to apologize. This is part of taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions, but it’s also about practicing humility and fostering healthy relationships. We often let ourselves become isolated because of our own failures, cutting ourselves off from the things that will allow us to thrive. And then we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere.
Apologizing is more than just saying I’m sorry. It’s publicly admitting that you screwed up. And I get it, for some of us this is hard to do. But this is part of growing up, so get on your big boy or girl britches (as my mom used to say) and get on with it. You’ll realize it’s much simpler to apologize in the end than it is to carry that junk around in your heart.
Sometimes other people will let you down. Your team didn’t win the big game because someone failed to run the right pattern, or you didn’t get the deal because your coworker bombed the presentation. By choosing to forgive, you’re acknowledging that you are not perfect and so you don’t hold anyone else to that standard either. You’re providing an avenue for healing and growth to the people in your life. And carrying around a grudge isn’t healthy anyway.
But don’t forget to forgive yourself either.
Having a high expectation for yourself is good, but self loathing is not. Don’t let your frustration turn into negative thoughts. Don’t make agreements with lies about yourself that will handicap your future.
“You’ll never get this!” “You suck!” “You’ll always be a loser!”
These are the kinds of things that come into our heads when we fail. We have to be intentional in rejecting these negative thoughts, and replacing them with truth. It starts with forgiving yourself and releasing the inner tension that creates the environment for negativity to thrive.
Find the lesson.
In every failure there is an opportunity to learn.
Blaming others, hiding our mistakes, being unwilling to admit when we are wrong…these will only lead us to repeat our failures time and time again. But when we accept that failure is a part of the growing process, we will respond to our mistakes differently. We will look for ways to adapt, to change and to grow stronger…and then we will find success.
The most successful athletes spend hours studying film, looking for ways they can improve. Successful leaders will look at conflict and failure, and find ways to handle that situation better next time.
Don’t stop trying.
Walk Disney was fired from his newspaper job because he “lacked imagination”. Steven Spielberg was rejected twice when he applied to get into the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Stephen King threw his first novel Carrie away, and would have abandoned it if his wife hadn’t pull it down of the trash can. Abraham Lincoln went to war a Captain and was demoted to a Private, and failed numerous times to gain election to low-level offices before becoming one of the greatest presidents of the United States.
If you believe in something, don’t stop trying. Learn, stay positive and ask for help when you need it. But don’t give up.
Failing isn’t indicative of your ability to succeed.
How you respond to failure is.