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How to deal with failure

Success in any endeavour comes hand-in-hand with failure; it’s an unavoidable part of the process. When failure happens, it’s an indicator that you’re acting, innovating and pushing outside of your comfort zone.

It’s through failure that we learn, stretch and improve. How we handle and react to failure determines the degree to which we will ultimately succeed. Those who struggle in the face of adversity are often those who lose motivation and give-in to fear and despondency.

To succeed, we must master failure.

Fail, Learn, Grow, Innovate

Failing is an inevitable part of growth. To fail doesn’t define you as a failure. How well you react to failing not only influences your results but it also shapes your character. Will you be broken by it, or will you push on, better equipped with the knowledge of one more way that didn’t quite work?

Innovators throughout time have recognised failure as part and parcel of the gradual journey to positive results. From the innovation of the wheel through to the electric lightbulb, failures litter the path to success.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!”
-Thomas Edison

Those who innovate and push beyond the boundaries of accepted wisdom, understand failure. Those who test the limits of their own knowledge, experience and imagination recognise that to progress, you have to fail. Failure is inherent within accomplishment and essential to the pursuit of greatness.

To get from zero to hero is not a linear journey to the top, made by those lucky few who manage to side-step hardship, disappointment and adversity. EVERYONE fails, even those whose successes we admire and seek to imitate.

Chances are your heroes are those who have failed the most in their field of expertise. They’re also the ones who’ve figured out how to make it work to their advantage.

More Failure = More Success (usually)

Rather than being paralyzed into inaction through fear of failure you must seek it out. When you’re committed to taking action AND open to the possibility of failure, you increase your chances of ultimate success, but only when:

  • You see each failure as feedback on your actions, rather than on you as a person;
  • You analyse, learn and adapt your approach based on it;
  • You keep on going!

When we passionately invest ourselves in our business, it’s easy to pin our hopes and dreams on the next action, on the next play. We convince ourselves that our success, and even our identity will be defined by the results of the next thing we do.

Instead of this ‘all or nothing’ mentality, we need to to treat each action as an experiment, a test or an iteration towards the bigger goal. As Seth Godin puts it, “this might work, this might not work.”

We can underestimate the importance of the many baby-steps, the small actions that contribute to our achievements. Just as important are the lessons learned from failure. These lessons enable the course-corrections, the tweaks and the improvements to our businesses, our services and ourselves that will get us the results we want to see in our life if we KEEP GOING.

“Greatness is a lot of small things done well, day after day”
-Ray Lewis

Body builders deliberately tear their muscle-tissue through weight-training to build strength. Public-speakers grow confidence through putting themselves in front of bigger audiences. Entrepreneurs need to also use failure to strengthen, learn and to help themselves to progress to the next level.

The things we learn through failing are inherently part of growth, of bettering ourselves to move forwards in life. This only happens when we’re prepared to accept the learning from failure rather than allowing it to crush our determination or dampen our desire for success.

Side-effects of ‘good’ failure.

Success feels great, but the biggest lessons in life come from failing over winning. When everything is going smoothly it can make us complacent. It’s easy to take success for granted, to lose the hunger and the drive.

When you fail, you learn. When you’re succeeding, maybe it’s a sign to push yourself even harder. Maybe it’s time to set new goals, to seek out new failures and to continue the process of learning and growth.

Build the habit of failure, but as a route to success, to bigger and better things. Don’t hope for failure in a sadistic sense, but don’t let fear of it distract or detract from your efforts either.

Fortune favours the brave and the world loves a trier. When you are giving your all, working hard and acting with bravery and determination other people will support and encourage you, and the universe will seem to do so too. When you act with courage, and approach failures as an opportunity for growth, your self-worth will also increase as will your confidence and determination.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
-Michael Jordan

Tactics for growth out of failure

Persistent action, determination and an open-mindedness to learning are key, but there are other ways to benefit from failure.

Not all failures are equal. Calculated risk is sensible, and learning from failure is positive but be cautious of taking huge risks and failing repeatedly. Staking your family’s future on your next venture so that you can learn big if you fail big, is not smart. Huge risk can lead to HUGE failure which will ultimately break you.

Failure isn’t something to be approached flippantly. You must treat your work and your art and the risks of failure in each, with seriousness and respect. The difference is in not taking yourself so seriously that you can’t accept and learn from failure without letting it define or label you.

Pioneers and leaders in their fields are those who innovate and blaze the trail, operating at the frontier of their industry or technology. You too can be perceived as a leader if you’re willing to challenge conventional wisdom and find new ways of doing things. To do this effectively requires a willingness to fail, and fail often.

In the technology industry particularly, minimum viable products are shipped early to assess demand and test functionality. For every Facebook, Tesla and iPhone there were undoubtedly millions of failing prototypes that were shipped fast, met with rejection, but yielded invaluable feedback and insight that contributed to later successes.

Don’t be afraid to fail fast and fail often.

There will be others who have pushed boundaries before you, and the lessons from their failures are there to help you through yours. Read their biographies, listen to the success stories and you’ll realise that those who have achieved the most are likely those who have also failed the most on their journey as well.

Learn from their lessons and be inspired by their spirit of learning. The best mentors and advisors aren’t those who talk in unproven theories, but rather those who have the battle-scars from dealing with the challenges you face. Seek them out, ask the questions and learn from their failures too.

Supportive and inspiring people will help you get excited about challenges where failure is a possibility, and you should surround yourself with these people. Those who are risk-averse or afraid of failure will discourage you from taking chances. They’re projecting their fear of failure onto you, and are envious that you can confront your fear and discomfort as you push forward regardless.

When is a failure not a failure?

Virtually all discoveries, inventions and significant achievements are the result of bold experiments, tests and exploration. The first powered flight, 4-minute mile and ascent of Mount Everest each no doubt came following numerous failed attempts not just by those who eventually cracked it, but many others before them.

Things that are perceived as failures at first can later be recognised as great successes in their own right too; consider penicillin and the post-it note, two significant discoveries that were by all conventional definitions, mistakes.

Failure can have upside way beyond the learning it enables.

Failure is in the eye of the beholder.

When we look on at those whose successes we admire, it’s easy to kid ourselves that they cruise through life with ease, effortlessly moving from one success to the next. We forget that beneath the surface they’re working hard, furiously paddling like the proverbial swan that glides with seeming ease across the water.

What differentiates them is that they aren’t afraid of failure; as Gerald Ratner has shared, “your heroes have had it WORSE than you”. The difference is that they don’t let failure and adversity scare them out of action. They don’t let it knock them off track or worse, put them off taking action in the first place.

They recognise that failure is an inherent part of success through the learning and growth it enables.

Contextualise failure and see it for what it is. Failing doesn’t make you a failure. It’s only a negative if you don’t learn from it, and keep on making the same mistakes or doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome.

Train yourself to react to failure as an opportunity rather than a threat to your progress. Make failure a stepping stone to your success.


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