An New Outlook On Failure


“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.”

– J. K. Rowling

Failure is a vital part of our own growth as individuals and as a society. However, as a society, we collectively shun the fundamental part that it plays in our development and consequently, as individuals, we often look at failure as something to be penalized.

It is common for us – part of our nature – to confuse the things we do with who we are as a person. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to failure, as there’s the risk of starting to consider ourselves as Failures when we’re not successful – and of course, no one is successful all the time. Failure, just as success, is fleeting. Just as you’re not in a permanent state of bliss, you’re not in a permanent state of success nor failure.

Considering ourselves Failures, or considering others Failures causes us to become blind to opportunities for change. We become defensive, focusing on proven methods and on what is known to work and we leave no room for creativity, ingenuity and innovation. We often self-sabotage through procrastination, excessive anxiety or an inability to follow through with our goals, which might lead to low self-esteem or self-confidence, thinking we’ll “never be good enough to take on that job”.

In a downturn market, as the rate of failing businesses and unemployment soar, it is fundamental to be able to overcome failures and capitalize on them to build your success. The thing about failure is that you can decide how you look at it. You can choose to look at failure as the “end of the world” or as the learning experience that it often is. These lessons are very important; they’re how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again.

Understanding Failure

It is within our grasp to change our perspective on failure by understanding it’s nature. But this requires not only a shift in perception. It requires us to fully embrace failure as part of ourselves without considering ourselves failures in the process. Only by accepting that we are part of the problem, can we be a part of the solution – in short, for you to really be successful you have to accept your failures as well.

Changing our perspective on failure requires us to take a step back and look at it from a different angle. So instead of trying to understand what failure IS, let’s rather take a look at what failure is NOT.

Failure is not final

We often tend to think that after failure there is nothing else. You’ve failed and that’s it! Well, just as success is not a final destination, neither is failure. Life is a trial and error process and everything in life is a trial an error process. So if you haven’t tried you haven’t lived. And to try, you must contemplate the possibility of failing just as you contemplate the possibility of succeeding. When you fail, you have learned something. This is the basis for a better outcome further along the road, or a needed change that leads you to a new path that might take you to even greater heights than you initially thought.

Failure is not avoidable

People often believe that if they are really careful they can avoid failure. This is the point J. K. Rowling was making in her Harvard commencement speech. Face it: It is not possible to avoid failure forever. Every decision you make has a certain amount of risk and, with it, comes the chance of failing. You can not completely avert the risk of failing and if you want to achieve great things, you must certainly be prepared to fail big as well. Additionally, neither success not failure are completely under our control. There are always external circumstances that influence the outcome of any enterprise. What really matters is how we choose to act acknowledging that we do not control everything and that failure is never completely avoidable.

Failure is not irreversible

While failure may at times feel like a destination – you’ve arrived at Failure. Population 1. Welcome – it most certainly is not. Failing is part of growing and it is not irreversible. Once you start changing your perspective on failure and understand that it is part of your learning process, you quickly become aware of other venues to explore and how to capitalize on what you have learned from your failures. With this realization, failure becomes a stepping stone, and not the final, looming, stigmatizing destination you might have thought it out to be.

Life does not present us with obstacles so that we don’t achieve our goals. It does so to test our resolve in achieving them. So, when you fail, think about what you have learned. Think about what you didn’t do and try again.

Failure is not an isolated event

We frequently consider failure as a single, isolated incident – I was succeeding right up to the moment when I failed. However, just as success is not an isolated event, neither is failure. We do not just simply fail at something in one single moment in time. Failing is the outcome of a journey, of a series of steps and choices we make along the way. Acknowledging the possibility of failing, of making the wrong choices, is what enables us to accept failure and embrace success. Be conscious of the choices you are making and the consequences of those choices. Be true to yourself and act and choose in accordance with your values. If you do so, you might even fail to achieve your goal, but you have acted congruently with yourself and, in that regard, you will always succeed.

Mitigation Plans

We can’t avoid failure, but by being more conscious and mindful we can reduce the risk of failing and possibly enhance our chances of success.

  • Analyze potential outcomes – facing tough choices provide ample ground for failure. Particularly if you’re not fully aware of the potential outcomes of those choices. There are a number of techniques like decision trees, grid analysis or Pareto analysis, that can help you explore potential outcomes and to weigh your options  more clearly
  • Keep a positive attitude – You should not underestimate the power of the proper attitude in the face of any challenge. It is that much important when facing a failure. Maintaining a positive attitude is a key component of success as it demonstrates self-control and is a key trait of leadership.
  • Prepare for worst-case scenario – There are times, where the worst-case scenario is disastrous, but more often than not it is generally not that bad. Either way, thinking about it and eventually preparing for it beforehand, when you are collected and rational can help you cope with the consequences of the failure if the worst-case scenario materializes.
  • Prepare a contingency plan – This is not the same thing as preparing for the worst-case scenario. Actually it is taking a more constructive approach than simply preparing for the worst. It says that you contemplate the possibility of failing, but that will not put you down. You have an alternate route to follow that you can try if you don’t reach your goals. Just be mindful of not letting your Plan “B” distract you from your Plan”A”. The last thing you want is to focus so much on developing your Plan “B” because you’re afraid to fail that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Setting Goals

As I’ve stated above, failure is not an incident that suddenly happens in a split second – it is the consequence of a series of steps you take and choices you make. The reason many enterprises fail is due to poor goal setting. Setting SMART goals is a way to become more conscious of the path you’re about to take. Even when the problem seems too complex or too undefined, decomposing it into smaller chunks by setting specific, attainable goals that are relevant to you and you can measure and track, can help define a roadmap for your ultimate objective. It is a way to mitigate failure by becoming more aware of and controlling the path you’re following and the choices you’re making.

Setting goals gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation. It focuses your acquisition of knowledge, and helps you to organize your time and your resources. Here are a few tips on setting effective, achievable SMART goals.

  • Be positive – express your goals as positive statements, not in the negative form
  • Be precise – include measures and dates into your goals so that you can easily track progress
  • Prioritize – give each goal a priority so that you don’t become overwhelmed by too many goals and can focus on the most important ones
  • Be realistic – set goals that are achievable or at least within the realm of possibility. We all have dreams, but a vision is what really drives us.
  • Set goals based on what you can control – set goals that are under your control and don’t directly depend on external factors

Final thoughts

Most of us live our lives asleep, dreading to fail, without actually committing to anything – our jobs, our families, our society, ourselves. To really make a difference, to enable change, you have to take chances and, with that, risk failing. Are you going to live your life asleep or are you going to wake up and realize that failure is the price you might have to pay to achieve your success?

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