To Succeed, Get Comfortable with Failure

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There are countless elements that contribute to productivity and success. I’ve covered many of the important ones in this space, and will continue to cover more of them for as long as I can. One that’s often undervalued, however, is getting comfortable with failure.

This is because the fear of failure is a powerful restraint on a person’s willingness to experiment, to think outside the box, and take prudent risks. As you get more comfortable with failure, its ability to restrain your thoughts and actions understandably diminishes.

The result of getting comfortable with failure is that you feel open to more possibilities, which increases the likelihood that you will generate, encounter, or accept choices that can help you be more productive and successful.

Here, then, are some ideas intended to help you feel more comfortable with failure:

It’s Inevitable

Have you ever known anyone who never experienced failure? Of course not. We all live. We all breathe. And we all fail – at least sometimes. That seems to be a law of nature.

Since you can’t avoid failure, you may as well get used to it.

This is not to say that you should expect to enjoy failure. Failure is most often an unpleasant experience, like pain: Nature’s way of drawing your attention to something important. But there’s a lot more to failure than any pain you may feel from it.

It Need Not Hurt You

Although I just brought up the possibility of failure’s pain, failure need not always hurt you.

For example, when you’re playing a game, losing is a kind of failure. But only super-competitive people feel any kind of pain from losing a game. The rest of us just focus on the enjoyment we’ve been experiencing while playing, and often feel willing or even eager to play again.

Many skills, such as learning to ride a bicycle, solve a math problem, or master a magic trick, involve repeated failures as we practice the fundamental skills and work to improve our performance. There’s generally no pain here, either.

In these and other situations, we instinctively recognize that failure is inevitable, painless, and the best way to make any progress in the direction we desire. This attitude automatically takes the sting out of failure.

Adapting this attitude to other areas of your work and your life can help you feel more willing to tolerate failure there, as well.   

It’s A Teaching Moment

Although most of us tend to focus on the pain, humiliation, frustration, and other negative aspects of failure, the truth is that much of what comes from failure can be positive.

For example, failure is often a teaching moment. When accused of repeatedly failing to develop a workable light bulb, Thomas Edison famously said: “I have not failed. Rather I have successfully discovered 5,000 ways which do not work.”

Most failures can teach you a variety of important lessons, such as:

  • What doesn’t work.
  • How not to approach a problem.
  • Who you can’t rely on.
  • What skills, knowledge, and talents you need to improve.
  • Where not to go.

When one of my granddaughters, at age five, stuck a fork in an electrical outlet, in addition to shorting out the lights in the house she immediately learned not to do that again.

It’s A Transformative Moment

While failure can teach a great many things about the world and the people in it, there are times when a really significant failure can transform you.

In the classic story “Gone With the Wind,” there’s a powerful moment when Scarlet O’Hara comes face to face with the ruin and starvation that follows the South’s loss in the U.S. Civil War, and she swears aloud: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

I personally had a bad experience trying to help a difficult person accomplish his goals, and was transformed by the realization that working with certain types of people often ends badly. Since then, I have avoided those opportunities.

It’s A Motivational Moment

The lessons and transformations that can flow from failure are more than educational. The conventional wisdom is that failure is demotivating, causing people to stop trying or entirely give up. But with the proper attitude, failure can be extremely motivational, too.

Just as Scarlet said “never again” to hunger and began working hard to keep herself well fed, you can become more highly motivated by failure. Someone who has been sliding through life without much effort or thought can find they begin to appreciate their relationships, experiences, and opportunities a great deal more after a big failure. Significant disappointments can drive people to revise their goals, change their habits, work harder, or give a higher priority to their personal passions.

It’s A Positive Moment

Here’s a little more of a philosophical take on failure that may resonate with you: Many sales people come to understand that every rejection or refusal to buy from them is, in a sense, a positive step, because it brings them closer to their next sale. In this way, they appreciate rejection rather than fear it.

In the same vein, you can learn to view every failure as a positive moment, because it brings you one step closer to your next success. Seen from this angle, failure is not to be feared, but to be expected and even embraced as a necessary stepping stone toward whatever you are trying to accomplish.

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