Three Ways Failure Moves Us Forward

We’ve all heard stories of famous people who struggled, who failed, and who ultimately succeeded. Listening to these examples, I can almost hear soaring movie soundtracks underscoring the victories. These inspiring tales make us think: Someday, my challenges will be worthwhile because I’ll have a story to tell. I’ll create a theme park or an internationally successful book series.

But what if we don’t? Will our failures be any less meaningful to us, if we don’t turn out to be as successful as Walt Disney or J.K. Rowling?

Expectations Can Make or Break Us

Maybe our failures will be meaningful as plot points on our way to huge success. But what about failure’s significance today? Think of each failure as a debt. We invest $10 one day–a small struggle–and $100 the next with a bigger embarrassment. Maybe we crash and burn with a $100,000 disaster. The debt racks up. We pull ourselves up again and again with the expectation that one day, an overwhelming stroke of success will outweigh each failure’s pain. Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t strike that often. By the time we have a $1,000,000 debt against future success, we’re more likely to fall apart than to strike it big.

The Value of Failure

It is possible that any life will turn out to be an epic tale of failure and success. However, we can all count on our lives being a day-to-day mixture of hardship and joy. We can make practical decisions about how to deal with failure in the day-to-day, so we don’t rack up future debt. As with money, the small decisions we make matter. We can be strategic now, or we can pile up hardship on our future selves.

Failure has a cost, but it also has value. When we are willing to feel the sting of failure and learn the lesson failure has to teach, we can invest our learning in next steps. Each success or failure builds upon our lifetime of experience. What we learn helps to ground us, adds to our future decision-making capacity, and expands our toolkit and understanding.

How Failure Moves Us Forward

Failure Builds Resilience

Many people fear public speaking. In fact, what they actually fear is the embarrassment of messing up in front of a crowd. The more often a person speaks to groups of people, the more this fear decreases. Why? Because over time, we learn that while embarrassment is uncomfortable, it’s also survivable. When a speaker can roll with inevitable mistakes, she can focus on more important goals, such as clear communication and connecting with an audience.

Surviving failure builds resilience, whether it is a small failure, such as tripping over a word in front of a crowd, or a larger one, such as launching a new product or artwork to lackluster response. The secret to gaining resilience through failure is to:

  • Look the failure in the face.

Yep. I messed up. Yep. I feel embarrassed. And I wish I could go back and make different decisions. 

  • Ask yourself: What can I learn from this experience?

Make something of the experience right now. Rather than hoping that future success will make this moment meaningful, reflect on what happened, apply any learning that you can to your next decision, and move forward. 

Failure Provides Information

Once you’ve built enough resilience to brave failure regularly, experimentation becomes a powerful tool. If your mindset requires that you present a perfect face, moving into new territory is challenging. But, when you’re able to share your flaws-and-all self with those around you, you can start to beta test. 

How might this look? What if you wrote a picture book a day, rather than trying for one perfect one every month? What if you hopped on Facebook Live daily for a week rather than painstakingly planning a one-time presentation? The secret to gaining information through failure is to:

  • Quickly iterate.

Quick iteration offers a speedy feedback loop. Growth speeds up because you’re putting more material out there and receiving feedback more often.

  • Listen carefully.

In quick iteration loops, some of your feedback can rub your ego the wrong way. You know things would be more polished with more time spent on the details. Do your best to see past the less helpful comments so you can hear the more substantial feedback. What’s working? What should you build on? What do you need to let go?

Failure Closes a Door

Sometimes failure closes a door. A real and true no can be particularly painful. That said, even closed-door failures can move us sideways in unexpectedly positive ways. When failure closes a door, we gain important information. Our past approach is no longer an option. Also, we gain time that otherwise would have been tied up. Where will we invest our time? What did we learn through the experience that we can invest in future steps?

The secret to moving forward after failure closes a door is to:

  • Grieve the loss.

Grief must be experienced, now or later. The most healthy way to deal with loss is to brave the pain of it, to accept it for what it is, and to honestly process the emotions. Beware the expectations that show up, vying for your attention. It’s true, this moment may pay off sometime in the future, but the experience has value right now. You are gaining strength, confidence, and grit.

  • Decide what to let go and what to carry forward.

Some of the lessons learned will be worth carrying forward, but some disappointments should be let go. Consider treating this decision-making process as though you are packing a suitcase. Examine every thought and belief before folding it and placing it inside the suitcase. Make sure each article in the suitcase has a productive purpose.

  •  Take action.

When the wind exits our sails, we can either drift or turn on the motor. Even if we’re not entirely sure of the overall plan, it’s important to take action. Once we’re in motion, we can start to iterate and find our way forward through actionable feedback.

Failure isn’t romantic. Like grime, it can build up over time and get in our way. However, if we’re mindful about our reaction to failure when it shows up, we can use difficult circumstances to grow. With thicker skin, small failures can roll off our backs, and we can increase our ability to succeed by putting ourselves in increasingly challenging situations. The more pitches we swing at, the more we’re likely to hit a ball out of the park.

Have you experienced a failure that helped you to grow? I’d love to hear your story. Share in the comments section below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. In the meantime, here’s to you and your creativity!

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