What do historical legends such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln have in common with modern day magnates Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, and J.K. Rowling? The obvious answers are fame and success. But there is a more powerful answer that might surprise you.
They all experienced painful, demoralizing failure on their journeys to the top.
The kind of failure that would derail many people from going forward and pursuing their goals and dreams. Had they succumbed to these failures, they easily could have faded into anonymity. Their incredible contributions to science, history, sports, business, and literature may have been lost.
Edison was deemed "difficult" by a teacher and lasted a total of 12 weeks in school. Einstein dropped out of school at 15 and then failed his first university entrance exam. Lincoln lost eight elections, failed in two businesses, and suffered a nervous breakdown. Jordan was famously relegated to his high school's junior varsity team. Oprah was publicly fired from her first television job. J.K. Rowling, a single mother living off of welfare when she started her first Harry Potter novel, once described herself as "the biggest failure I knew."
This raises in an important question - what is it that fuels people who are wildly successful and separates them from others? Are they ultra-talented? Do they have access to special resources that the rest of us don’t have? Are they just lucky?
Sometimes it is easy to feel this way. After all, when we look at successful people, we see where they are today. We don’t see the difficult circumstances, the embarrassing mistakes, and the crushing disappointment that they have overcome.
But the truth is that these people earned their success in spite of failure, and they did it through effort, persistence, and resilience.
The Reality of Failure
Failure is an ugly word. No one likes failing and no one wants to be known as a failure. And yet, as these and many other examples reveal, failure is inevitable if you want to accomplish anything of note.
The reality is, you can be certain that you will experience failure in one way or another. So, you have a choice. You can:
- avoid trying anything new or difficult to prevent failure from occurring,
- experience failure and be crushed by it, or
- embrace failure for what it is – unavoidable, necessary, and a chance to learn and grow.
Entrepreneur.com | Six Stories of Super Successes Who Overcame Failure >
This post is for people who are ready to step up to option 3. If you’re someone who already has a healthy tolerance of failure, this post can help you influence others to adopt a similar mindset. And while some people will have an easier time with this than others, we know with certainty that anyone can build the capacity and fortitude to overcome failures and achieve their goals.
Let’s look at why failure feels so bad, why we’re afraid of it, and strategies for turning failure into a catalyst for success.
Why Does Failure Feel So Bad? Why Are We So Afraid of It?
The answers may seem obvious. But it’s worthwhile to dig a little deeper to understand what informs our views on failure.
1. We Like to Look Smart and in Control
We admire people who appear to have all the answers and everything under control. We want to be the same way and we worry about what other people think of us.
Failure is not a good look when you prioritize how others perceive you. It feels embarrassing and shameful. If you see failure as humiliating, you’ll avoid sticking your neck out in fear of scorn and judgment by others.
2. We Judge on Outcomes, Not Process
From a young age, we are taught to judge ourselves and others on outcomes. Getting an A on a test, winning a game, getting accepted to a prestigious school, these are defined as measures of success. But we often forget to acknowledge and praise the effort that it takes to achieve these.
Focusing only on outcomes, and not the process of success, makes us vulnerable to quitting and acquiescing to defeat when the going suddenly gets tough. It makes us question ourselves and withdraw the first time we get a “C,” have a bad game, or receive tough feedback.
3. We Overstate Risks
When we look at a new challenge or opportunity, we may obsess over the downside. We are prone to hyper-focus on what might go wrong. When we do this, we paint an unbalanced picture of negativity that prevents us from moving forward. We will say “it’s not worth it.”
4. We Are Impatient
Everyone likes instant gratification. It feels good to achieve immediate results. And even though we know that there are few overnight successes, we set our expectations unrealistically high.
The problem with this is that we will be easily disappointed and discouraged at the first sign of difficulty. If things don’t go well right away, we may be inclined to give up and jump ship.
Together, these factors may cause you to be paralyzed by the idea of failure and to develop a closed mindset about what is possible and worth trying. This fearful mindset can become worse if you do gather the courage to try something and it goes poorly. Instead of seeing the failure as an event, you may begin to think of yourself as a failure. This line of thinking can have disastrous consequences.
It’s Time to Rewrite Our Story on Failure
There are plenty of reasons to fear failure, to avoid taking risks, to quit when things get hard, and to assume that successful people made it using some special abilities or powers that you don’t have. However, if you accept this as your reality, you’re also accepting that you aren’t going to go very far in your personal and professional endeavors, at least in terms of fulfilling your full potential.
If you don’t like the way that sounds (and you shouldn’t), then it’s time to re-write the script on what failure is.
Failure is healthy. It is a sign that you are trying new things and pushing your limits. It’s an invaluable learning experience. It sends a message to others that you aren’t afraid to take on something difficult. It’s a challenge to be embraced. It’s worth experiencing failure because it puts us on the path to accomplishing more than we could have before.
Theodore Roosevelt once said,
5 Steps to Overcoming Failure
Hopefully by now you are convinced that you don’t have to be one of those “poor spirits in the gray twilight.” If so, here are five steps you can take to make sure that you are ready to take on failure without looking back.
1. Acknowledge That Failure is Inevitable
You need to accept now that things won’t always work out. You’re going to have ideas that go nowhere. You’re going to be rejected by others. You’ll be told that what you are trying to do is impossible. You’re going to try something new and find it to be much harder than you thought.
Knowing that these experiences are coming will help you to stay committed and not be deterred when things go sour.
2. Stop Caring About What Others Think
Yes, we all want to be liked. But it’s a real problem if you make your decisions and choices based on a desire to appease others. It’s time to put that concern at the bottom of the priority list.
Fast Company | How to Stop Caring About What Others Think >
You’re not going to convince other people to like you – so worry about achieving your goals and let the rest work itself out. Know what is most important to you and seek the company of those who will support you and offer positive, forward-looking feedback.
3. Recognize That It’s Going to Hurt
Up to this point, we’ve talked about the need to embrace failure. This does not mean that failure is ever going to be fun. Even the most optimistic people among us are going to hurt when the bottom drops out on an idea or venture, especially if a lot is at stake.
It’s ok so spend some time with those emotions and to feel the frustration, anger, and disappointment. The key here is to not let these feelings linger in an unhelpful way. Let them go and see if you can channel them into motivation for whatever you pursue next.
4. Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work
You can only control one thing when trying something new, whether it’s as simple as a new hobby or as complex as a new business venture:
Keep grinding away and relentlessly pursue your goal. Having to work hard at something is not a sign of weakness. Effort is a hallmark of those who succeed.
5. Take a Step Back. Look at The Journey
When something goes wrong, it’s easy to lose perspective. Take a big picture view of your goals and progress and make an honest assessment of where you are.
If you are only three months through a project that you knew would take a year, don’t panic. When you hit a setback, pull yourself out of the moment and try to be objective about what you are experiencing. It’s possible that all is not lost.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it never would have amounted to much if everyone gave up at the first sign of trouble. As Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”