Dealing with Failure

See also: Celebrating Success

We all have bad days and weeks, when nothing seems to go right. We all also have times when we fail to achieve something that we really wanted and find it hard to cope.

However, some people seem much more able to pick themselves up and dust themselves down after these experiences than others.

These people are not intrinsically ‘better’ in any way: they have simply developed some positive habits and skills that help them to overcome failure and turn it into a more positive experience. In fact, they use failing as a way to learn and improve. This page discusses and explains some of these skills and shows how you can develop an ability to deal more gracefully with failure.

Understanding Failure

If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…

Rudyard Kipling, If.

Some people, such as Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem If…, have suggested that success and failure are two sides of the same coin. In other words, neither really matters. Whatever happens, you have to pick yourself up and move on. This approach was perhaps typical of the Victorians. They felt that it was important to be able to win and lose gracefully—and that it was not appropriate to show your emotions, whether happy or sad.

We have perhaps become a little wiser about the importance of recognising and showing your emotions. However, being able to win and lose gracefully is still an attitude that it might be appropriate to cultivate.

Failing to win a sports competition, especially a major event that you have been working towards for several years, or to get a promotion or pay-rise, can feel devastating at the time. When you look back later over the whole of your life, however, it is unlikely to feature as one of your defining events—especially if you have later gone on to succeed in the same field. When humanity looks back over the last 500 years, your ‘failure’ certainly won’t feature.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter all that much to anyone else. In a few years, it won’t even matter to you. It makes sense that it shouldn’t matter now.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but there are things that you can do that will help make it ‘not matter now’.

Ways to Manage Failure

1. Recognise and accept your emotions

Failure hurts, at least in the first instance, and you need to accept that. Trying to minimise your feelings or distract yourself can be counter-productive in the longer term. Just recognise your feelings for what they are and allow yourself time to hurt a bit.

Don’t, however, dwell on it for too long. That, too, is counter-productive, especially if you blame yourself.

Take a few days for the pain to lessen, and then start to move on.

2. Don’t make it personal

One reason why some people find failure devastating is that their identity is tied up in succeeding.

In other words, when they fail, they see themselves as a failure, rather than perceiving that they have experienced a setback. Try not to see failure or success as personal: instead, it is something that you experience. It does not change the real ‘you’.

This comes back to Kipling’s point: success and failure are not intrinsic parts of you. No part of your identity should be ‘I am a success’ or ‘I am a failure’.

3. Don’t worry what anyone else will think

Sometimes our views about success and failure are tied up in what other people will think about us, or about how we think they will judge us.

You cannot ever control what other people think. Nor should you ever do something simply because it will please other people.

It is easier to accept both success and failure if you define them in your own terms, and do things because you want to achieve, not because you think other people will be pleased.

There is more about this idea of measuring ourselves by others’ standards in our page on status anxiety.

4. Take the right amount of responsibility

We have all met people who are always ready to blame others or events for their lack of success.

  • “The referee was biased!”
  • “The teacher doesn’t like me, that’s why my mark was so low.”
  • “If only I hadn’t been ill last summer, I wouldn’t have missed several weeks of training.”

It is important to recognise when other, external factors have affected your success. You don’t need—and should not try—to blame yourself for everything, particularly if it is outside your control.

It is, however, also important to recognise what you yourself could have done to improve matters. For example, could you have trained or worked harder? Was your revision really all that it could have been? Did you really prepare for that interview in the best possible way?

Take responsibility for the factors over which you have control, and don’t be tempted to hide behind excuses.

5. Use failure as a way to improve

Don’t think of failure as failure. Instead, think of it as life’s way of showing you that you need to improve, and how to do so.

In particular, ask yourself what you could have done differently to achieve a better result. Then consider how you could put that into practice to help you to improve for next time.

Case study: Rising from the ashes of failure

In 1999, the England Rugby Union team lost to South Africa in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Jonny Wilkinson, the fly-half, later commented that he had felt at least partly responsible for this disappointing and early exit from the competition, because he had not played very well. He said that this had encouraged him to work harder in the next few years.

Wilkinson was known for his obsessive approach to practising his kicking. He practised for hours each day from slightly different places on the field, until his accuracy became almost legendary.

In 2003, his persistence paid off. England won the World Cup in the final minute of extra time, with a drop goal from Wilkinson.

Would this have happened without the ‘failure’ in 1999? It is impossible to say, but Wilkinson himself certainly put some of the credit in that direction.

Think about failure differently, and your approach to both it, and the future, will be different.

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.

The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.

Winning and Losing with Grace

We try to teach children to win and lose games with grace: to accept the ‘two imposters as the same’.

We tell them not to ‘crow’ or ‘gloat’ when they have won, and we encourage them to accept defeat when they have lost. As adults, the wins and losses may not necessarily be on the sports field, but perhaps we can all learn a little from the idea that failure is only temporary.