Whether it’s a project or a relationship or anything else. And failure is something we as human beings don’t deal with particularly well.
Find any “Top 10 greatest fears” article, and failure will be on the list – usually toward the top.
And it’s no wonder you fear failure. Failure hurts. It slows you down, and it causes all kinds of negative, unpleasant feelings.
- Disappointment that things didn’t work out as you had planned
- Embarrassment because people will know you failed
- Shame for having dropped the ball somehow
- Dread of what will happen as a result of your failure
Worst of all, failure has a way of making you want to quit.
Hey, I get it. Those types of feelings are natural reactions.
But here’s the thing: If you only focus on the negative aspects of the situation you’re missing out on a powerful learning experience and an opportunity to stack the deck in your favor going forward.
A Simple 4 Step Process for Turning Failures Into Gold
Like most people, I’ve had been through my share of failures – and over the years I’ve learned how to respond differently to them. The trick is to go all “Aikido” on failure. Aikido is a form of martial arts that focuses on using an opponent’s momentum to redirect their attempted attack.
(Yeah, I saw it on Walking Dead. Great episode… but I digress.)
The more power your opponent (failure) throws at you, the more power you have to use in redirecting the attack.
Here are 4 steps to redirecting the power of failure into something positive:
Step 1: Acknowledge You’re up Against Something Powerful
The usual gaggle of self-help gurus might disagree with this step (sorry Dr. Phil), but the first thing you should do is acknowledge that something powerfully negative just knocked you down a notch and allow yourself to feel whatever you feel.
It sucks to fail. It hurts. And to pretend that it doesn’t serves no purpose.
See, I’m not one of those, “just think happy thoughts and everything will be ok” people. Instead, I believe you need to acknowledge and deal with your negative emotions. So that’s what I do.
Depending on the seriousness of the failure, give yourself a short amount of time to let the emotions flow. Maybe a couple hours or even a day.
You dingus! How did you let that happen?
Why does this stuff always happen to me?
Man, I hope so-and-so doesn’t think less of me because of this.
I really let everyone down this time.
This wouldn’t have happened if that other person wasn’t such a jerk. They caused this more than I did!
Let yourself have those negative thoughts. Allow yourself to blame, whine, and complain. Get it out of your system.
But here’s the important part…
It’s ok to be bummed, angry, and depressed when something bad happens. So vent those negative emotions only for a set amount of time – and when that time is up, STOP IT.
Tell yourself it’s over and you’re moving forward. Then DO move forward.
Step 2: OWN the Experience to Overcome Failure
After you’ve allowed yourself to feel and vent all those negative emotions, let them go forever and acknowledge that no matter the crazy circumstances and no matter who else might have contributed to what happened, that experience belongs to you.
It’s yours. You OWN it. Protect that experience like it’s your child – because even though it may not seem like it right now, there’s tremendous value in it.
Step 3: Forgive (Yourself) but Don’t Forget
There’s a lot of self-blame involved in failing. Some of it may even be partially deserved, but by and large you’re likely being too hard on yourself – and that road won’t take you anywhere good.
Regardless of the circumstances, tell yourself…
I can’t change it now.
I won’t repeat this mistake.
I’m going to learn everything I can from this experience.
And forgive yourself.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take responsibility for your mistakes. I’m saying you should acknowledge them and then treat yourself like you would treat anyone else you love.
“You probably shouldn’t have done that, but I love you and you’ll do better next time.”
Failure is an event, not a person
– Zig Ziglar
Forgive. Don’t forget. Move on to better things.
Failure is an amazing teacher. It has a way of teaching us lessons we should already know, but didn’t take to heart when we read them on a printed textbook page – or heard them coming out of the mouths of our parents.
Failure makes lessons hit home. Quickly.
When I was a kid I was a hyper little spud. Energy to spare. And among other dumb and dangerous activities, I had a passion for jumping up and down on my bed like it was my own personal trampoline.
As you can guess, I was told a few thousand times that I shouldn’t do that because I might get hurt.
Do you think I listened? Aw, hell no. I let it go in one ear and out the other and continued playing acrobat on my bed until —
One night my parents were out and my older sister was babysitting me. And by babysitting I mean watching TV and talking to boys on the phone.
It was only a matter of time before I was once again jumping on the bed like a spider monkey on a sugar high.
My sister warned me. Several times. “Cut it out. You’re going to get hurt.”
I heard her, but I didn’t hear, you know?
A few seconds later… bam! One foot hit the mattress, the other missed and went right off the edge of the bed. I fell, tumbled off the bed, and landed right on my hyperactive little face – driving one of my lower canine teeth (you know, those sharp ones) right through my lip and out the other side.
Hospital. Stitches. Angry parents.
And that’s the last time I ever remember jumping on the bed.
As it turns out, a dose of pain, a liberal amount of embarrassment, and a moderate amount of my own blood taught me a lesson that I wouldn’t pay attention to in the form of wise words from people who knew better.
Those things that hurt, instruct
– Benjamin Franklin
It’s really no different in the “grown up” world. The stakes are higher and the lessons are more significant, but sometimes we need a little pain to get us to listen and pay attention.
Step 4: Perform a Post-Mortem on Failure
Once you’ve let go of the negativity, and you’ve owned the experience, it’s time to be a little selfish and dissect the whole ordeal to find the hidden lessons inside it. Lessons that make you smarter, stronger, and more prepared for the next time fate tries to mess with you.
I promise you – every failure is littered with many little nuggets of gold if you’ll only make the effort to mine for them.
Remove any lingering emotion from the situation, grab a paper and pen, and ask yourself…
- What exactly happened – step by step?
- Was this one big mistake or a series of smaller mistakes that added up?
- Was I paying attention to and listening to the other people involved?
- Was I an effective communicator during this situation?
- Did I have realistic goals going into this?
- Was I trying to solve the right problem?
- Could I have better identified the problem before it happened?
- What information could have helped me avoid this situation?
- Who could I have consulted or asked for help to change the outcome of this situation?
- What didn’t I know then that I do know now?
- Where might I find additional information and resources about this type of situation?
- When I come across a similar situation again, what will I do differently?
Take notes and be honest with yourself. And learn from your mistake.
The only shame in failing is not growing as a result of failure
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Bones Heal and Chicks Dig Scars
You’re on a path to something significant. Sometimes you may think you know where that path is leading and then get surprised by the many twists, turns, and obstacles you find along the way. And sometimes that path will take you to a totally different destination than you expected – and even better one.
While it’s easy to look at each failure as something that takes you off your path and knocks you backward a few steps, I’ve found that something quite the opposite is usually happening.
What if you’re not ready to navigate that part of the path just yet? What if there’s a skill or some specific knowledge you need to successfully move forward?
If you keep approaching it the same way, you’ll likely continue to be disappointed.
But if you use your challenges and failures as an opportunity to bounce back, to learn and grow – you get better at navigating all those twists and turns along the way.
Don’t be ashamed that you failed at something – be proud that you were smart enough to learn from your mistakes and become a better person in the process.
What valuable lessons have your past failures taught you?
How do you overcome failure?
Share your thoughts and stories below…