When we think of failure, we associate it with pain, suffering, sadness and not being good enough.
Failure gets a bad reputation in our society, and it’s not difficult to see why. With the rise in social media use, we only see a curated selection of successes. People rarely share the failures they encountered on the way.
This pushes the narrative that failure is not acceptable, and more than that, it is a shameful secret.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is, whether we like it or not, failure is a normal part of life. For everyone.
And once we accept this universal truth, our limits know no bounds. Because you see, failure isn’t a limitation; it’s a tool for success.
Famous faces such as Oprah Winfrey, Vera Wang and Elvis Presley all failed remarkably before becoming the icons they are today. And I don’t think any of us would consider them a failure, do you?
Perfectionism – the anxiety of failing
Many people suffer from a fear of failure, and those suffering from perfectionism are some of the worst hit.
Those who suffer from perfectionism (not to be confused with perfectionists) have a more extensive criterion for failure. For them, anything less than perfect is considered a failure in at least one aspect of their lives.
This leads them down one of two paths:
- Burnout – they work themselves so hard they make themselves physically ill because they fear being judged as a failure
- Inaction – they become so paralysed with fear of not being good enough that they never start anything. This becomes a dangerous and damaging cycle for their self-esteem.
In both cases, the root cause of fear of failure is feeling they are not good enough. Maybe you can relate to this feeling.
There is a distinct pressure within western cultures to be the best at everything. And it just isn’t possible. And that can lead to a fear of failure. We know that failure is necessary for success, but what makes it so good?
Why failure is necessary to succeed
1. Failure builds resilience
If you have been actively avoiding situations you may fail in; the first time is going to feel awful. And that’s ok.
Putting yourself out there time after time helps you acclimatise to the reality that it is ok not to get it right all the time. Failure is a part of the journey.
Picture failure as a muscle. Just like with the muscles in your body, you need to exercise them to make them stronger. The same goes for failing: the more you fail, the more you are able to cope with it and embrace it as a trusted friend.
Sometimes, failure cannot be avoided, and it has nothing to do with you.
In psychology, there is a term called Locus of Control. In simple terms, it explains how much control you feel you have over your life, and it works on a spectrum.
An internal locus of control indicates feeling you are entirely in control of your life, whereas an external locus of control means you believe everything around you controls your life.
It is not good to be on either extreme, and feeling a high level of internal locus of control may cause you to think that it is your fault you failed when this won't always be the case.
2. Failure is an opportunity to learn
Failure can be the key to success if you reframe it in this simple way:
“You can’t fail if you learned something from it.”
You see, what society labels as a failure is actually just an action that had different results than you were intending. And while they may not be the results you wanted, they moved you from where you were.
The true enemy to success is stagnation. When you don’t move, you don’t fail, but you don’t win either. Essentially, your life becomes a form of Groundhog Day, which is enough to break even the toughest of minds.
When you set out your goals, you probably outlined a path to get from A to B. When you fail on the way, you might assume it is because you did something wrong.
But have you ever considered that the plan just needs adjusting?
We have it in our minds that success is a straight upward line on a graph when the reality is about as smooth as the most treacherous of rollercoasters.
And once we accept the rollercoaster ride, not only are we able to learn from our failures, we can also use these reflections to gain a deeper understanding of what we are doing and why.
Likewise, learning from a failure means we can find other paths that may fit our needs better and that we may even enjoy more.
3. Failure allows you to see what isn’t working
Learning what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does work on your journey to reaching your goals.
A lot of people are married to the plans they make for their goals and only tend to pay attention when things are working.
When things aren’t working, you may assume that it is because you aren’t good enough rather than accepting the fact your plan may be flawed.
After learning from your failure, you may discover some aspects of your plan just don’t work. And here is Albert Einstein to tell you why it is essential to recognise the things that don’t work:
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Finding out what doesn’t work allows you to get focused on improving your ideas for what might work and experimenting further. Eventually, after eliminating the bad ideas, you get to the good ones – it is all part of the process!
4. Failing helps you gain self-confidence
It probably sounds counter-intuitive, but accepting failure as part of your journey can lead to a drastic improvement in your self-confidence.
You might be wondering how. After all, failing can feel soul-destroying at times – that doesn’t seem particularly uplifting.
As stated in the first point on this list, failure is a muscle that you can grow resilience to over time. And so, each time, the pain will be less and less.
It is important to remind yourself that no one on this planet is good at everything, especially not the first time they try.
And even for those we perceive to have incredible innate talent, they still need to practice their skills, or they won’t be as good. Talent will only get you so far, but practice can take you further, even if you don’t think you have talent.
Think about some of the best singers of the past few decades like Beyoncé, Adele and John Legend – they all practice their craft, they don’t just perform incredibly on talent alone. And I bet you, while they practice, they make plenty of mistakes because they are only human after all.
See, the difference between you and a person who has the success you want is simple. They weren’t afraid to fail.
So as you start building your failure resilience, you will gain the self-confidence of knowing that whether you fail or succeed, you will be ok, and able to carry on.
And there is nothing more empowering than not being scared to try something because you are afraid you will fail. Because once you get to that stage, you will be unstoppable.
How can I become more comfortable with failing?
If the thought of trying and failing is sending you into a flurry of cold sweats and heart palpitations, don’t worry. We all have to start somewhere, and it’s ok to start scared out of your mind.
If you seek discomfort by finding opportunities to fail on purpose, you will realise you are more than capable of handling it and pursue your passions with less fear.
Here are some tips to help you begin your journey to embracing failure so that you can smash your goals with confidence.
1. Start small
Failure isn’t always a huge disastrous event of catastrophic proportions. For some people, failing can be as simple as accidentally knocking over a pen in a shop.
So, for those new to the failure train, it is ok to start small. For example, try purposefully misspelling a word in an email to your boss or a co-worker and sending it.
You’ll soon see that what feels like a big deal to you doesn’t actually have dire consequences.
2. Be kind to yourself
You are your own worst critic. And that means no one is going to give you more grief about failing than you are.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine your best friend had failed in the way that you had. What would you tell them?
I doubt you would scream and them and insult them for making a mistake.
Assumably, you would reassure them that it is ok and that they’ll get it next time as long as they keep trying.
So why can’t you extend that same courtesy to yourself?
Having self-compassion will help you feel better about failures and be less afraid. Remember, there is absolutely no shame in failing because it just means you were brave enough to try.
3. When in doubt, journal it out
Fear of failure often comes from a place of low self-esteem and is rarely based on fact.
Journals can help you in a couple of ways.
Firstly, they help you keep accountable by writing down how you failed and giving you a clear picture of how your progress is coming along.
Secondly, journaling allows you an honest and open outlet to express exactly how you feel about each failure you encounter. You can use your diary to try and get to the root of what is causing your fear of failure so that you can address it and become stronger for it.
Usually, there is a specific trigger that causes us to close ourselves off to uncomfortable situations, so understanding your own triggers will empower you to improve your relationship with failure.
Finally, you can use your journal to challenge your thought processes. For example, let’s assume you are afraid of failing because you think people will laugh at you.
Can you give examples of when this has happened to you specifically? When did it happen? Who did it?
Trying to find examples of times where your fears have become a reality is an excellent exercise in accepting the irrationality of fear, as often, our fears are based on feelings, not facts.
So consider this your scientific experiment to aid your journey.
4. Call for backup
Your support system is one of the best tools you have when dealing with failure.
They will give you the encouragement you need to get back on your feet and try again because they believe in you. And hopefully, after accepting failure as part of your success, you will too.
And if you are too scared to start, you don’t have to go it alone. Instead, ask a friend to help you with some of the activities you are scared to fail at. That way, you have someone to support you present, and you will feel more confident.
Eventually, you will build the confidence to go it alone, so don’t worry if you rely on friends and family for help – it’s what they are there for!
To finish, I will leave you with these empowering words of wisdom from the great basketball player Michael Jordan:
“I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
So now that you know how important failure is to your success, get out there and shoot your shot!