What if you fail?

When you set out to try something new, to do something you’ve never done before, failure is a real possibility. Life isn’t like the movies. Often, you build it and no one comes; you create something that no one wants; or you do everything right and your dream doesn’t come true.

Failure sucks but it’s a part of life. But if you handle it correctly, if you look at it the right way, it can be a springboard to success and a fresh start.

How to handle failure

  1. Hold it lightly. Recently, former dominant female mixed-martial arts champion Ronda Rousey was despatched in 48 seconds by her rival, Amanda Nunes, putting paid to a much anticipated comeback. Rousey’s reaction was to leave the arena without speaking to the Press or crowd that had gathered to watch (and for many, wish for) her successful return.
    On the same night, fellow fighter and arguably pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, Dominick Cruz, was handed his first shock defeat in 8 years by underdog, Cody Garbrandt. The lead up to the fight had been full of bad blood and smack talk between Cruz and the entire Garbrandt camp – with Cruz winning that fight hands-down. Many anticipated a humiliating post-fight interview with a devastated Cruz eating humble pie. What they got instead was a masterclass in handling defeat. It was not lost on the fight fraternity, with Cruz winning respect and more fans for the way he dealt with failure.
    The difference between Cruz and Rousey was that Cruz accepted the reality of defeat. He didn’t run away, he didn’t hide, he didn’t make excuses. He recognised that he tried to achieve something but it wasn’t to be. As he said, “Loss is part of life. If you don’t have loss, you don’t grow. This isn’t tough, it’s life.
  2. Every successful person fails. Probably more than you. Successful people know that failure comes with the territory. Failure is a sign that you tried to do something. And it’s the people who try who eventually win life’s rewards. The people who many admire: Richard Branson, J K Rowling, Michael Jordan, Stephen Spielberg, Stephen King, Oprah, Abraham Lincoln – all experienced multiple failures before finally succeeding.
  3. How you feel is how you feel. Resist the temptation to banish unpleasant thoughts and emotions. You need to let how you feel play out. Neither embrace nor reject the feelings but just observe them. Be a passive spectator. A useful tip from mindfulness meditation is to focus on your breathing. As your mind wanders (as it will, that’s what minds do) back to the painful failure, gently bring it back to focus on your breath. Do this for 20 minutes: focus on your breathing in, breathing out; as your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. If your mind wanders 1,000 times, bring it back 1,000 times.
  4. Failure is temporary. Samuel Beckett famously wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Looked at in this way, failure is like the weather – it just is – and it will pass. It doesn’t define you. Just because you failed this time (or even countless times), the next outcome could be different. You only have to succeed once. In the words of Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
  5. Learn from the failure. Whenever you experience a failure (and after the raw emotions have subsided) take the opportunity to learn from it. What went wrong? What mistakes were made? What would you do differently next time? What have you learned from it? Use your failures as stepping stones to success. The successful people around you are those busy making mistakes, stumbling and trying again.
  6. Separate your self-esteem from outcomes. If your sense of worth is tied to success, you’re in an unhealthy place. Acknowledge what is and what isn’t under you control. Outcomes are often reliant on third-parties – people and events that we have no control over. As soon as you tie your well-being to something that you cannot entirely influence, take a step back and reframe your success in accordance to something that you can control completely. Set process goals, not outcome goals.
  7. Don’t give it more power than it deserves. When we refuse to acknowledge something – to talk about it, address it or confront it – it festers. It grows in the darkness and starts to have power over us. Neither dwell on your failure nor make it a forbidden topic. It is what it is and should be dealt with as matter-of-factly as possible.
  8.  You can live too cautiously. J K Rowling said, “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.” Elbert Hubbard put it a different way, “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. You’re not at school anymore. The need to be one of the cool kids, to avoid ridicule and not to be too different are long gone. You fail? No one really cares.
  9. Talk it over with someone supportive. Confide in someone you admire and trust. Get their take on your situation. Ask them to go through the failure with you to offer their opinion. Get their honest feedback. What do they think you did wrong? What did they think you got right? But don’t dwell. This “post mortem” discussion can be helpful but it shouldn’t be drawn out. Don’t go back to retread old ground. Have the one discussion and move on to your next project, taking the lessons on board. Don’t let discussion become obsession or rumination.
  10. Failure can give you self-belief. It may seem counter-intuitive but failing (even repeatedly) can boost your self-belief by giving you the knowledge that you can take whatever life throws at you. You’re still here. A person that refuses to lie down and take it is hard to beat. If you can get past your hardships, what else can you do?
  11. Don’t allow failure to shrink your world. It’s easy to withdraw from others and the world when you fail. As the saying goes, those who matter don’t care; and those who care don’t matter. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and work on the next project that interests you. This is living: experiencing new things and using your body and mind to their fullest to explore the world around you and add value. To do that, you need to be brave and put yourself out there and that sometimes mean failing. The bigger failure however would be to shut out the world and not try at all.

Takeaway points

  1. Failure is part of life. If you’re trying to achieve something, you will experience failure along the way.
  2. Every successful person you know has failed – and will continue to fail.
  3. Failure is temporary. Keep swinging for the fences. You only have to succeed once to change your life.

Action steps

  1. Identify the gold. Look back on a failure and identify the lessons you can learn from it. What did you do wrong? What would you change next time? Are there principles you can take with you for your future projects?
  2. Don’t dwell. Identify the next project that interests you and take action. Discussion and reflection is useful but don’t let it become a habit. Keep moving.
  3. Quantify the failure before you begin. Before you start your next project, answer the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” If the price is too high (e.g. you’ll lose your home or your kids will go hungry), modify your approach. Otherwise, proceed without regret or hesitation.

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