Oh, sweet failure.
That gut-wrenching feeling of screwing up, letting someone down (and yourself down), and not rising up to expectations.
You know that feeling all too well — as humans, we fail all the time. It’s just a fact of life, us being these flawed creatures and all. No one is immune to failure.
And, we hate failing, don’t we? It’s uncomfortable as all hell. We’re hardwired to run away from failure as fast as we can.
Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics says, “When failure is stigmatized — demonized — people will try to avoid it at all costs, even when it represents nothing more than a temporary setback.”
But failure doesn’t feel temporary when it happens. It damages our ego and it feels like the the weight of the world is on our shoulders.
Then, you go to the nearest bar and drink a shameful cocktail: one part regret and two parts self-doubt, with a twist of over-analysis.
But, let me stop you here before you get wasted on your feelings of failure.
Although you know failure is going to happen at multiple points in your lifetime, in all areas of your life, you still try to mitigate it. We all do this.
Despite our terrible odds, we stubbornly try to beat the house.
Why do we let failure get the best of us?
Simple: failure is the antithesis of success. And we love success. Anything that gets in the way of being successful becomes an immediate threat.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that our relationship to failure and success lies in our mindset. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.”
If you think your identity is unchangeable, you’re in a state of desperately having to prove your worth to the world. You never want to risk bruising your ego. You opt for the road you think you have the best chance of success at, and try to mitigate any failures along the way.
But here's the catch.
If failure is inevitable, then why are we still at its mercy? What if we join forces with failure instead?
This is what happens: when you work with failure, instead of against it, you actually become more successful and feel more fulfilled in your life.
In a wonderful paradox, success happens because of failure.
And, guess what? Your ego will recover.
So, for the next time (and the next time) you need to overcome an epic fail, here are five ways to bounce back.
1. Own Up To It
Acknowledge your failure to yourself, and someone else. Say to someone out loud, "I failed." And then tell them what happened.
By telling another person, you're solidifying the fact that the failure exists, instead of hiding from it in the comfort of your own mind.
Economist and journalist Tim Harford says, “To be terrible with failure is to be so terrified of admitting it that you continue with a disastrous course of action. You just continue to fail because you tell yourself you’re not failing.”
Remember, everyone fails. Don't apologize for that. But it's important for your personal growth to recognize when failure happens.
2. Get Out of Your Own Head
After you experience any type of failure, it's easy to dwell in all the thoughts – the I don't know's, the I'm not enough's.
What is it that gets you out of your own head and allows you to connect with the world? Meditate. Write your thoughts down. Laugh with friends. Start a new project. Go for a run.
Whatever it is, release the sticky energy that forms from dealing with failure. Breathe. Smile. Once you do, it will feel like a total win. Getting out of your head let's you reset and it opens up the space to learn from your missteps.
3. Build Resilience
Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle says, “The universe is an inherently uncertain place. We tend to think that we can somehow engineer failure out of the system, but we can’t.”
She’s right. We can’t control the future. We can’t really control the outcome of anything in life. But we can expect that it typically won’t go the way we think it will.
So, prepare to fail again (and again). When you expect that it'll happen, it makes it easier to pivot in a different direction and take a new path. It also makes failure more commonplace – it's more of a building block and less of a burden.
4. Look For Opportunities
Failing opens up our perspective and usually gives us a lot more time and breathing room. It forces us to take a giant step back — but in turn, that helps us see more of the big picture.
Spend some time doing what you really want to do. Look for new opportunities to get you back on track. Apply for that job. Set a coffee date with that person. Write that song that's been stuck in your head.
Remember, failure is only a temporary setback. Release yourself from the pressure of failing and use it as an opportunity to learn and adjust. By reframing failure, it makes it much less scary and much more manageable.
5. Keep on trying
Failure is a gift of freedom. The freedom to start over, to have a fresh slate. In Silicon Valley, the model is to, “Fail fast, fail often,” and mistakes are seen as necessary. Once again, the biggest failure is to never fail at all.
When you fail, keep trying. Experiment, iterate, take action, and try again. The work you have done on a project, a relationship, anything, is all learning. Learn from failure and make another decision, and another, and another, in whatever direction you want to go in. You got this!
. . .
So, thank you. Thank you for failing.
And thank you for getting back up again, even with the knowledge that you’ll surely fail again. Because that right there, is bravery.