The Importance of Failure: Strategies for Learning From Failure

As with so many things in life, failure is a matter of perspective. Strange as it may seem, you really can learn to value and even embrace it. Of course, some will roll their eyes at the suggestion and dismiss all this as mere therapy talk, or even as a way for losers to comfort themselves. But failure does have valuable lessons to teach. Ask someone who has been successful in sport, business, or even the arts, and they will almost certainly agree that they got where they did by learning from their failures.

The Downside to Positive Thinking

From an early age, people are told to be positive and develop a can-do attitude. And no doubt this is important. There is, however, a downside. What some label positive thinking may in fact mean nothing more than enduring a miserable situation. Many people become trapped in a job or relationship but are too afraid to leave. No, they think, I am not happy – but I am at least safe. If I were to give my life a mark out of ten it would probably be no more than five or six. But what if I took a chance, left my partner, quit my job, and things got worse? I don’t want to go from a six to a four – best to accept things and make the best of them.

In many cases, positive thinking is simply a way of hiding fear. People present themselves as cheerful and defiant in the face of adversity when in fact they are merely scared to take a chance and fail.

Perspective

First, you must face the fact that you will fail in life. You cannot avoid it. Even if you do stick with your miserable job or marriage, that guarantees nothing. Failure is as much a part of life as eating, drinking and sleeping. If you doubt this, consider the following: one in three marriages end in divorce, roughly half of all new businesses collapse within five years, and around 80% of movies and books released annually in the USA fail to make a profit.

You cannot control the world. You cannot make it stand still. Movement, change and failure are part of the experience of being alive. What you can control, however, is the way you perceive and experience all this. In other words, you can decide how you will interpret your failures.

Let’s take relationships as an example. Imagine a 34-year-old woman whose marriage has just ended. She has a two year old son and works in nursing. The split has hit her hard and she feels like a terrible failure. A friend tells her to draw up a list of all the relationships she has had in her life, beginning with the boy she dated in college and ending with her ex-husband. 

Now she has a choice. She can look at this list and think “why have I never been able to make one last? I am going to end up old and alone. What is wrong with me?” Or she can think “each relationship was different and each taught me something about myself and about life.” She could take this further, actually writing the name of each man and then beneath that man writing down what she learnt and how that knowledge might help her in her future relationships.

Perfectionism and Fear 

One of the biggest obstacles to a successful, happy life is taking failure personally. People fear failure because they fear what it will do to their self-esteem. Consequently, many only feel a sense of self-worth when things are perfect. Obviously, this is very dangerous.

This danger is especially acute for those whose parents were far too rigid and demanded success, achievement and results. Such children do not receive unconditional love but instead learn that love (which every child craves) depends on their achievements. Put another way, the child learns that to fail is to be unloveable.

Experimenting With Failure

Why not try experimenting with failure? Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something a little scary. Don’t think or analyze, just throw yourself in and accept whatever happens. This can help you get into the habit not of failing but of learning from each new experience. Try the following:

1) Order food in a foreign language. The good news is that you needn’t go abroad in order to make a fool of yourself! There are almost certain to be restaurants in your nearest city or large town that are run by people who do not speak the same first language as you. Don’t worry if your grasp of their language is imperfect, the waiters will almost certainly appreciate your effort. And who cares if they laugh!? Laugh along with them.

2) Date someone you would normally avoid. Obviously, this does not mean dating someone you find unattractive or threatening. But, let’s say you are a man and normally date girls who are ambitious and career-minded. Why not try asking out someone a bit arty or eccentric? How about the girl who works in your local vegan or New Age store? Of course, the date may be a complete disaster. You may even find yourself reduced to silence, while she sits there looking bored to death. But it will at least be a new kind of experience.

3) Try cooking a meal for family or friends. If you are the sort of person who finds toasted sandwiches complicated, try making a three course meal for friends. Remember, you are learning to approach failure in a new way. If that seems too big a deal, try simply cooking dinner for your partner. Things will almost certainly go wrong – you will use too much sugar, or leave the meat in for too long, or not realize that you should have placed it on the bottom shelf of the oven, or whatever. A week later, try the same meal again, this time correcting your mistakes. Cooking is an excellent example of how people learn through failure. You can be sure that your favorite chef messed up her signature dish numerous times before she got it right – indeed, that is how she got it right!

Remember, a winner is not someone who never fails. No such person exists. A winner is someone who fails, accepts this, learns from it, and then tries again – and again.

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