Failure and setbacks are painful, whether you flunked a paper or course, didn’t exactly excel at an internship, or missed some other goal. You’ve probably been there. In a survey by Student Health 101, 67 percent of student respondents said that they had experienced a failure that seriously rocked their self-belief.
Yet, as counterintuitive as it is, we all need failure and setbacks. Some of the world’s most creative and notable people (think empire builders such as the late Steve Jobs) have said that failing is integral to succeeding. “Failure is essential training,” says Sam Weinman, author of Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains (TarcherPerigee, 2016). This helps explain why, in our survey, 70 percent of students said they had experienced a failure that led to unexpected benefits.
Setbacks build vital life skills
We tend to define success as a single, narrow path from one achievement to another—especially in a competitive academic setting. In reality, success (however we define it) is an equation with many variables. The most important factor is how well we can adapt to and grow from new experiences, researchers say. This is how we develop vital life skills (like resilience, creativity, perspective, compassion, and empathy), which determine how successful we are going forward.
New experiences involve taking risks. None of us have unlimited ability. Risks inevitably, at some point, bring setbacks. In a competitive world, it can be tempting to stick with safe choices rather than to challenge ourselves, but risks are also our route to growth. Students get this: In the Student Health 101 survey, 75 percent of respondents said they’d like to become more comfortable with the possibility of failing.
Imperfection is worth it
The irony is that college is supposed to be all about discovery—of ourselves and the world. “Lots of things that are worth doing are worth potentially doing poorly, in a way,” says Dr. Ariel Phillips, a counselor at the Success-Failure Project at Harvard University, an initiative that reconsiders the meaning of success, failure, mistakes, rejection, and resilience.
For example, says Dr. Phillips, “If something is truly a cutting-edge idea or effort, it’s almost certainly not going to be perfect the first time.” That imperfect outcome is how we learn. “Failure and losing are real crystallizing moments in terms of helping you understand where you need work,” says Weinman.
Bottom line: Failure can give us a leg up. To turn your setbacks and failures around, reframe them for yourself, and use them to fuel your progress.
How to make failure your fuel
These four strategies can help you handle real-life fails successfully.
1. Respect the process
“Focus on the process,” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure (Harper, 2016). “What did you do to get to the result you are facing? What might you try next time? Break down the failure into what worked and what did not.”
This takes two steps:
- Give yourself permission not to be a finished product. To really learn, you have to embrace mistakes and mess-ups.
- Redefine what you think of as success. For example, rather than make a breakup about your inability to have a good relationship, learn things from the experience that you can use to improve your next relationship.
To help with this, be brave and ask for feedback. “Take the feedback seriously and graciously,” says Lahey. “Toss the feedback that’s not relevant, and then carry the useful feedback forward into your next attempt.”
2. Value the learning experience
When you’re looking for a job, a bit of failure under your belt can be a good thing. “Many corporations emphasize the value of hiring grads who can do well with ambiguity, uncertainty, mistakes, and failures, especially now, when so much is changing so fast,” says Dr. Phillips of the Success-Failure Project.
Try reframing a setback as an experience, and a valuable one. Even in the job market, it’s OK to admit to a little vulnerability. “There’s an atmosphere of newness all the time; that means students have to be better and better at dealing with failures and mistakes as part of being at the cutting edge,” says Dr. Phillips. “An interviewer doesn’t think it’s particularly authentic when somebody claims to have mastered everything.”
For example, rather than dwell on a track record that includes some moments you aren’t proud of, play up your ability to persist in spite of those failed interviews or projects.
As part of your interview prep, describe a “failure experience” and what you learned from it. “Acknowledge and take ownership of setbacks, without over-explaining them, then pivot the conversation back to information that will reassure the interviewer,” says Jeff Onore, a career coach based in Waltham, Massachusetts. For example, if you’re concerned about your GPA, reframe it: “My overall GPA reflects a year when I was dealing with two difficult life events. That experience motivated me to find supports and resources that taught me a lot about study techniques and handling uncertainty. That’s why my GPA for the subsequent period is considerably higher.”
3. Recognize this as simply an unwanted result
This is not an occasion for judgment. “It’s important to conceptualize failure as simply unwanted consequences,” says Dr. Jonathan Fader, a sports psychologist and author of Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2016).
We have a tendency to turn a failure into an existential crisis. But according to the experts, taking failure personally is a big mistake. Even significant setbacks, such as not being accepted at any of your top-choice colleges or getting fired from a job or internship, do not contain the entirety of your self-worth.
“When you place a judgment on it, it becomes about you and something you’re lacking—you’re putting a judgment on yourself that doesn’t exist,” says Dr. Fader. “Instead, think of it like this: A failure is simply an unwanted result.”
That said, it’s important to ask yourself what this failure means to you (a different concept from what it says about you). “Understanding how we make meaning of events is often critical to considering alternative meanings. Considering those alternatives helps us tolerate situations that might otherwise be distressing,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, a staff psychologist and outreach coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. For example, failing a test doesn’t mean you’re bad at the subject; it means you could use a different prep method.
4. Have a resetting ritual
“You need to have a way to flush negative results,” says Dr. Fader. “That might be a deep breath or that might be a self-statement. Try breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth; three seconds in, three seconds out.”
Even if you’re able to adjust your perspective to believe that failure can be a good thing, it still stings in the moment. To move on and get back in the game, you need to shake it off—aka having a reset ritual.
Instead of wallowing in your mistake, take a breather—literally. Switch tasks, go for a walk, take a study break, or hit the showers. Once you’ve cleared your mind, you’ll be in much better shape to re-approach the task or challenge.
Jonathan Fader, PhD, sport and performance psychologist, Union Square Practice, New York City; author, Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2016).
Jessica Lahey, author, The Gift of Failure (Harper Paperbacks, 2016).
Jeff Onore, career coach, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Ariel Phillips, EdD, counselor, Success-Failure Project, Harvard University.
Sam Weinman, author, Win at Losing: How Our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead to Our Greatest Gains (TarcherPerigee, 2016).
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