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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 recent survey by SH101, two out of three students who responded (67 percent) 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 Steve Jobs) tell us 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, 7 out of 10 students (70 percent) 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 a multi-variable equation. 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. Here’s the dilemma: Risks are also our route to growth. Students get this: In the SH101 survey, three out of four 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.
What learning from failure can look like
In a 2007 study by Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, researchers taught students either a “fixed mindset”—the idea that intelligence is a fixed measure and can’t be improved—or a “growth mindset,” the idea that the harder they worked and the more they learned from their failures, the more intelligent they would become. The students with growth mindset saw big improvements in their grades, while those with a fixed mindset stayed stagnant.
“If you go to a job interview and you find yourself a little nervous and inarticulate and you don’t get the job, that’s a failure in its way,” says Sam Weinman, author of Win at Losing. “But it also helps you understand, ‘OK, next time, I should be a little more prepared.’ That’s a thing you can work on.”
How to make failure your fuel
These four strategies can help you handle real-life fails successfully.
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.”
How to turn the experience around
This is a two-step process:
- Give yourself permission not to be a finished product. To really learn, you have to embrace mistakes and screw-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.”
“A relationship ended abruptly and painfully. I felt as if it was the ultimate relationship failure, which impacted my beliefs in my abilities to successfully have healthy relationships.”
—Aaron S., third-year graduate student, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario
What to say to yourself
“We broke up because I sucked at communicating. In my next relationship I’ll be aware of that and pay special attention to the messages I’m sending.”
Value the learning experience
“Many corporations emphasize the value of hiring college 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.
How to reframe the experience
Try reframing this 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 all those failed interviews or projects.
A similar approach is helpful in a job interview. 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 interview,” 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.”
“I constantly failed to impress employers in the public service every time I was interviewed. It made me think that I was not a desirable candidate for employment.”
—Ryan S., first-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick
What to say to yourself
“Like many candidates I got rejected from a lot of jobs, but I learned from each unsuccessful interview. More importantly, I didn’t give up. I’m dedicated and persistent.”
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).
How to make it not about you
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 being dismissed from your program 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.
“I took a math course that my friends were in that I failed miserably for the first semester. Considering that my sense of self was very tied up in the idea of being ‘good at school’ and ‘smart,’ this was very upsetting.”
—Dana M., second-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
What to say to yourself
“I failed my test. That sucks, and I’d like to get better at taking tests, so where do I need to improve for the next one?”
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.”
How to press the reset button
Even if you adopt a growth mindset and 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.
“I was injured in a hockey game by making a bad decision on a play and put myself in a vulnerable position. It negatively impacted my life and confidence. It took me a long time to get back onto the ice after that.”
—Mark M., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
What to say to yourself
“I screwed up that play, but it’s already in the past. Time to reset and focus on the next one.”
Grady William Bing
second-year undergraduate, Utah State University
“Failure—and our need for it—is the overarching theme of these five episodes: Defeated, Silver and Gold, WOOP, Grit, and Loss and Renewal. It turns out that quitting is often the most fruitful option, and it’s important to consider this. Opportunities are always going to be presented to us; doors will continually be opened. The host uses science and fascinating stories.”
It’s valuable to know that it’s essential that we learn to master failure. And that human beings are resilient—we’re designed to bounce back.
Though Hidden Brain was super-informative, there was a lack of humor and witty commentary. The tone and topics weren’t as playful as I would have liked.
As someone currently dealing with letdown, hearing very relatable stories from real people helped me feel motivated again.
How to Win at Losing: Sam Weinman
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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