We Americans love to tell ourselves that failure is not an option. We’re naturally enterprising, optimistic, and persistent. But despite our best efforts, failure is an inevitable part of life. Even if you try hard and give it 110%, you’re bound to experience failure at some point. Maybe it is the failure of a marriage. Perhaps your first small business failed, or you got fired from a job. Heck, it could be out of your control, like the real estate crash of 2008. Whatever form it takes, it’s an unfortunate reality that we’re all going to fail at something. Since it’s an inevitable part of life, we must learn how to overcome failure.
When learning how to overcome failure, is learning self-compassion really the first thing to do? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
When you experience a failure, you’re probably going to be hard on yourself. You might entertain negative thoughts like, “I’m a loser” or “I’m never going to be successful.” But these thoughts serve no useful purpose. They get us thinking in a negative frame of mind, which perpetuates feelings of despair and helplessness. If we let these thoughts fester, they can even alter our self-image and self-esteem.
The key to avoiding this unfortunate outcome is to treat yourself with compassion. This might sound like new-age mumbo-jumbo, but there is real science behind the concept. Researchers found that people who used self-compassion in the face of failure enjoyed better emotional balance than people who did not. Those who used self-compassion also experienced fewer thoughts of self-criticism and didn’t identify themselves as a failure. If you’re still not convinced, consider that those who used self-compassion to face failure were able to learn more from their experience.
Think of it this way: if you become convinced that you're a failure, you will probably have a hard time motivating yourself. You may end up accepting defeat or suffering from learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is not a beneficial outcome in terms of personal growth. On the other hand, if you acknowledge that you have failed but differentiate your failure from your identity, you are more likely to learn and grow.
So how do you practice self-compassion? There are three basic concepts to master. First, you must identify and accept your true emotions. It's okay to feel angry, afraid, embarrassed, or however you feel. Identify your emotion and engage with it. You can even say it aloud: "I'm angry!"
The second concept to master is that you’re not alone. Human beings are prone to various failure modes, and it happens to all of us eventually. It’s easy to feel isolated, alone, or ashamed after a failure. Remembering that most people will fail at something and that failure is a normal part of life can help put your situation in perspective.
Finally, imagine how you would talk to a friend who failed. Would you berate them for being a stupid failure and tell them to try harder because failure is not an option? Probably not, no. You would probably tell your friend that people fail all the time, and that they’ll learn and grow from it, and that you’ve got their back. So why not tell yourself the same thing?
Find the Root Cause of the Failure
After you've developed self-compassion, the next step in learning how to overcome failure is to address the big question in your mind: what happened? Once you're in a good headspace, i.e., you're not identifying yourself as a failure, you should figure out what happened. What was the root cause of your failure? Was it anything that was within your control? If so, what can you do to learn from this experience?
When analyzing the root cause of your failure, it's essential to understand that a root cause can be a system of co-causal events. What does that mean? It means that sometimes, multiple things happen that trigger a failure. There is rarely a singular cause of failure. Medical professionals like to use the Swiss Cheese model to explain how failures happen: several variables come together in one moment to trigger a failure event, such as wrong-site surgery. Failures are the result of a cascade, not a single event.
Since the events surrounding your failure were a cascade, the next question is: were any of the events in this failure cascade within your control? It certainly could be: your business idea could be lousy. On the other hand, there may have been a change in the market, an unforeseeable event, or a natural disaster that led to your failure.
Regardless of the circumstances, the final part of the root-cause analysis process is to learn a lesson. Often, failure is an opportunity to learn something valuable that we can take to our next venture. If your business failed because you made a bad business deal, you could use this to identify gaps in your business knowledge and find ways to fill them up. Maybe taking an accounting class or hiring a small-business attorney would be valuable next time. Instead of thinking 'failure is not an option' and denying that failure occurred, learn from the experience, and rise from the ashes like the phoenix.
Resilience is our ability to adapt to changing circumstances such as failure. Rather than internalizing failure and giving up, a resilient person accepts what happened, learns from it, and moves along. So how can you build up your resilience?
The first element of resiliency is learning to view hardships as challenges, not eternal circumstances. A failure can be challenging, no doubt. But even the most crushing defeat is not going to linger forever. You might be enduring hard times right now, but eventually, the winds will change, and things will start looking up — or at least stop actively crumbling around you.
The next critical element of resiliency is commitment. Resilient people find internal motivation to continue pushing on. While it might be easy to mope in bed and hide from our failure under the covers, the resilient person recognizes that this behavior is counterproductive. Instead, they commit to their idea. Sure, this used bookstore and tea lounge failed. But that doesn’t mean every used bookstore and tea lounge will fail. If you believe in what you're doing, you'll commit to the idea and be persistent in pursuing it.
Finally, resilient people have an internal locus of control. In other words, they attribute their successes and failures primarily to their efforts. This tends to be motivating, as the logical conclusion is that you should put in a lot of effort to succeed. People with an external locus of control view themselves more as being subject to the forces of fate and luck, which can lend itself to defeatist thinking and anxiety.
Develop Healthy Habits
One area where failure is not an option is in developing healthy habits. Healthy habits might seem out of place when discussing how to overcome failure. However, healthy habits are a key ingredient in overcoming failure. If you experience a failure and immediately stop exercising, start drinking heavily, and comfort yourself with food, you're not going to feel any better. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can help you feel better short term. Still, they usually have disastrous long-term effects: failure to cope healthfully with failure is going to set you up for even more failure, and you'll find yourself in a spiral. We can all agree that this is an undesirable state of affairs.
It's essential to find a way to continue with healthy habits in the face of failure. One of the most important healthy habits you should develop or maintain when you're trying to overcome failure is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being acutely aware of your emotions and thoughts without letting them consume you. In the context of a failure, mindfulness will help you process your feelings of shame, frustration, and disappointment without becoming depressed or embittered.
Exercise is another healthy habit that can help you when you're trying to overcome a failure. Failure can be a stressful event that causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol. An excellent way to help reduce the damage that these stress hormones cause is by exercising. If you're feeling really stressed out, hit the gym for a workout and pump your frustrations out on the machines. If you need to relax, take a walk in the park or even consider going for a hike. Channeling your frustration and grief into physical activity can be an excellent strategy for dealing with failure.
Find a Failure Role Model
Usually, when we think of role models, we think of people who we aspire to be like. Why then would we want to find a failure role model? Simply put: failure is a step on the path to success.
Plenty of wildly successful people have experienced significant failures in their life. Consider the case of Colonel Harland Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders, the man on the KFC bucket. Colonel Sanders had a hard childhood and progressed into an adulthood that was not much better. He drifted along in life from job to job, but nothing seemed to stick. In 1940, at the age of 50, he developed his famous chicken recipe. However, he experienced several more restaurant failures and a divorce before he was able to parlay his chicken-franchise idea into a reality at age 65.
Still not convinced? Think about Walt Disney, whose company is almost universally beloved today and whose theme parks are an icon of American entertainment. In 1919, he was fired from a newspaper for being too dull — imagine that! Disney eventually found success making cartoons with a local theater chain, but his animation company went bankrupt. Eventually, he moved to Hollywood and developed the Walt Disney Company.
Finding a failure role model like Colonel Sanders or Walt Disney can help you better understand how to overcome failure. You might be facing hard times right now, but with persistence and dedication, you can still find your way to success. Instead of fixating on the idea that failure is not an option, accept it and find ways to continue despite it.
The Final Step: Moving On
The last stop on our journey of learning how to overcome failure is moving on. When you fail, it’s okay to grieve, mourn, or even mope about what happened. Expressing genuine feelings is actually healthy! However, hanging on to those feelings consumes mental energy and takes up psychological bandwidth that could be focused on developing a successful enterprise out of the ruins.
In emergency situations in the wilderness, several factors influence the likelihood of a person's continued survival. While things like previous wilderness experience, military training, or even a couple of years in Boy or Girl Scouts might are relevant factors in someone's survival, the most important factor is what wilderness experts call a positive mental attitude. If you are in a survival situation and you spend your time feeling sorry for yourself and being pessimistic, you're probably going to experience a self-fulfilling prophecy soon. If, on the other hand, you have maintained a positive mental attitude, you are more likely to exercise your skills and use whatever resources you have at hand to confront the situation and live to see another day.
Overcoming failure is much the same as surviving in the wilderness. You have challenges, strong emotions, and obstacles that seem insurmountable. But a rational approach can help you to navigate a failure. By treating yourself with kindness, looking for causes, and developing resilience, you're creating a cognitive skill set that will help you in every part of your life. Finding a failure role model enables you to gain historical perspective and learn from people who have gone before you. And developing healthy habits will reward you for the rest of your life. It may seem like failure is the end of the road, but it's not. It's just a brief pit stop on your journey out of the wilderness. Hang in there, be nice to yourself, and stay positive. You'll be back on the trail before you know it.