How To Use Failure To Your Advantage

Do you remember being sent to your room when you were a child because you’d been wrong, bad or you’d failed at something?

As the memory comes back to you, see if you can also recall the feeling that you had about yourself and the situation at the time.

For most of us, the awful conclusion was a sequence of feelings rather than thoughts that followed a path like the one illustrated below:

They don’t love me.

Therefore I must be unlovable.

Therefore I am unworthy.

As you can see from the diagram, we unfortunately link the original behaviour or failure with the feeling of being unworthy. Because this unworthiness is more of a generalised feeling than a thought, we tend not to identify that link. What does happen for most of us is that we try to undo the link without really understanding its origin. We unconsciously go out and achieve as many ‘rights’, ‘goods’ and ‘successes’ as possible. In essence, we get hooked on being successful, in one form or another, as a means of establishing our worth as human beings.

Meanwhile, since we ultimately only want to be loved, we struggle with failure for the rest of our lives. The result of the link (which most of us haven’t noticed) between failure and being unworthy or unloveable, is that we fear failure on a completely ridiculous scale.

If you have ever been in an argument and halfway through it realised you were wrong, but kept on arguing anyway, you know this feeling! Losing the argument or admitting to being wrong brings on the uneasy feeling that we avoid at all costs. That feeling comes straight out of our childhood and it needs to be dealt with – the alternative is to spend the rest of our lives driven by an absurd desire to (one day) be ‘good enough’ to be worthy of all the love we want.

Let me be crystal clear – no amount of success will make any difference to how you feel on the inside. You cannot succeed your way to self-worth, love or happiness. Equally, no amount of success is going to make the fear of failure evaporate.

 

If you’re to be a happy, fulfilled adult it is of paramount importance that you break your childhood links and get extremely comfortable with failure.

Why?

Because failure is an incredibly valuable success tool. It can be a wonderful teacher – but you can only receive those lessons if you’re willing to fully embrace the failure itself.

With that in mind, let’s examine the transformational power of not succeeding…

Consider for a moment, how many marvels of modern technology (things you likely take for granted) would not exist if their inventors were not prepared to fail? Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “I have not failed 10,000 times – I’ve successful found 10,000 ways that will not work” is a perfect example of the power of failure.

Edison’s perspective also demonstrates another great benefit of failure – it teaches us to keep striving for our goals. There’s almost always more than one way to arrive at a particular destination. If we can see failure as a small misstep rather than a catastrophe, we can simply look for the next method to try.

Of course, Edison is not the only person of note to view failure in a positive light…

Steve Jobs was quite well known for being a college dropout, a fired tech executive and was even removed from the board of the company he founded. Yet, in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, he said, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Noted author JK Rowling spoke at length about the benefits of failure in another commencement speech, given at Harvard University. She talked about the clarity and inner security provided by the realisation of our fears. Here’s an excerpt worth sharing…

“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

 

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

Ultimately, what really matters when it comes to failure is your attitude. You can choose to consider failure a debilitating setback or you can, as John Maxwell suggested, fail forward. That is, you can turn the failure in to a great big tragedy or you can learn from it and let it go. Research suggests that the key to using failures as a stepping stone on the road to success is owning them. Put simply – acknowledge where you went wrong, apologise if you need to, look for the lesson and move forward.

 

Failure is also a great motivator – it keeps you hungry and humble. When you’ve failed, chances are you’re going to want to work harder, do better and be a better version of yourself.

What, exactly, would that look like?

Here’s a few key areas to work on…

  1. Understand that failure is not a personal indictment. You are not less worthy because your project didn’t work out the way you expected
  2. Practice failing gracefully – things will always go wrong and you’ll have plenty of failures between now and when you die. How you handle the situation is what defines you, not the fact that it happened in the first place.
  3. Learn to learn from your failures. Chances are you failed so you could learn – so let go of the failure itself and look for the lesson within it.
  4. Understand that you are perfect regardless of your successes and failures. There is nothing you can do that will make the people who love you, love you any more than they already do. If they love you unconditionally, there isn’t anything you can do that will stop them loving you.
  5. Accept that you cannot possibly be ‘good enough’ for the whole world to love and get on with your life anyway.
  6. Remember that a situation which feels dire now, might be the best thing that could have happened to you given time for the circumstances of your life to unfold.
  7. Embrace failure and all that it has to teach you.

I could go on – whole books have been written on the subject – but I’ll keep this one short and sweet. I’ll finish by saying this…

Learning to fail gracefully leads to more resilience, new business ideas, creative genius tapped, relationships deepened and a life crafted according to the dreams you had the guts to chase despite the odds.

 

In short, failure could be the best thing that ever happens to you, even if you don’t know it at the time. I can still remember the pain of the rejection of my first marriage proposal – at the time it seemed like my world had lost all meaning. Now, after nearly thirty years with my wife Mary, I’m overwhelmingly happy that initial rejection took place.

So let go of your fear of failure.

Set out each day making a conscious effort to keep taking risks and trying new things – fail with unapologetic abandon. Fail with glee.

You never know where you might end up…