It can sound almost sacrilegious to say, but the goal to succeed all the time is actually a terrible idea. The only way to achieve anything meaningful in life involves experiencing failure along the way. On one hand, no one enjoys failing. It can be an uncomfortable experience that tests your character. One of the reasons why it is so uncomfortable is that we often think of failure as an inherently bad thing. If we see failure as inherently bad, then we have no choice but to feel bad when we experience it. On the other hand, failure is absolutely essential to growth; plain and simple. You cannot grow, progress, or get better at something unless you fail. The key is to think of failure as a helpful step, own your failures, and learn from them.
Those that think of failure as a learning opportunity and a step toward success often achieve much (and fail a lot along the way). For example, here is a short list of such people. However, those that think of failure as a sign of defeat or an indication of inadequacy often avoid attempting things that might result in failure, therefore limit their ability to achieve, and have a tendency to miss the learning opportunity that failure provides.
Another reason why it is so uncomfortable to experience failure is that we can get trapped in the lie that your actions/experiences (failures and successes) make up who you are, as opposed to what you do. A person who feels like they are a failure because they have experienced failure differs greatly from a person who feels that their experiences of failure have nothing to do with who they are, but are simply experiences they have had. When your experiences define your identity, you are at risk of missing out on who you really are and what you are capable of achieving.
Here are a few tips on how to think about failure as a positive experience:
- Identify the positive aspects of failure. See it as a step along the way to success.
- Own your failures like you own your successes. Don’t hide them, don’t be ashamed of them. Accept them and talk about how they have helped you grow into the person you are today.
- Start finding as many things as you can to learn from each experience of failure. Identifying why a failure occurred can provide insight into how to get closer to success the next time.
- Develop a sense of your identity separate from the actions and experiences you have. Your identity will be more secure if it is based on consistent qualities/values/facts about yourself. Basing identity on actions, or the success of those actions, will only create a feeling of insecurity (since our experiences are not constant).
Additional tip: One of the most common questions we ask people who we are meeting for the first time is, “What do you do?” We are socialized to focus on actions as an indicator for identity. It’s hard to avoid it. But I try to make a small difference in this area in my personal life by trying to avoid asking a new person “what they do” but instead ask, “What interests you?” or “How do you like to spend your time.” Try it out and see how your conversations with new people change.
Shawn Healy, PhD