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Succeeding Through Failure (It’s So Easy, Even the Biggest Idiot You Know Can Do It)

“Boy, I really messed up that job.”
“Wow, I really studied hard for that exam, but still got a D.”
“Damn, I really thought this relationship had a chance.”

Who among us has not experienced failure at some point in our professional and/or personal lives?

Let’s be clear, failing is not the same as regret, in which you wish you had tried harder. It’s much worse than that: You tried to do your very best, and it simply wasn’t good enough. This kind of failure is especially painful, and it can be hard to shake. If the project, the class, or the relationship was important to your identity, you might start to see your defeat as part of who you really are.

So, what do you do now? You can just hunker down and hope that time will heal the wound. Or, perhaps instead you would prefer to confront your failure directly and actively manage it. Doing so won’t just lessen your discomfort; with a little knowledge and practice, you can turn your failure into a source of growth, and even…success.

Rather than protecting you from future disappointment, a cycle of rumination after failure can set you up for more failure, or at least missed opportunities to succeed. Brooding over a defeat has been found to lead to avoidance and reluctance to try something new. After you have been hurt by a failed relationship, for example, rumination can make you focus on the past instead of the future, so you are less likely to get out there and try again. You’re frozen in your moment of failure as you turn defeat over and over in your mind. You become fearful, lose confidence, and miss your opportunities for new success.

So, how do we deal with failure? How do we move forward after failure and maybe even benefit from it?

1. Think About Past Failures: Yours and Others
Researchers have found that studying the failures of others motivated students to handle their own defeats better and helped them obtain significantly higher grades than students who learned only about those scientists’ successes.

As it turns out, recognizing that visionaries such as Albert Einstein experienced failure actually can help students perform better in school. Columbia University’s Teachers College published a study that found that high-school students’ science grades improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists including Einstein and Marie Curie. If Albert Einstein can learn from his failures, so can you.

Studying your own failures can make them seem less earth-shattering. An article in Nature suggested that people maintain a “CV of failures,” a written list of the things that haven’t worked out in life. This notion might sound like rumination, but a CV of failures is very different because it is written. Rolling things around in your head keeps them in the murky realm of emotions, which are hard to manage. Putting them on the page may force you to employ more constructive cognitive processing, which gives you a clearer, more logical perspective on the specifics of why you failed—and can even help you see their positive side.

2. Pursue the Right Goals
One of the reasons failure can be so crushing is that all too often we set goals of success, instead of improvement and learning. Focusing only on success might seem like the right path, but it’s likely a mistake—and an especially easy one to make in a world obsessed with “accomplishments.” The value we create in work and life has a lot less to do with our accomplishments than with our knowledge and experience, which include the education we derive from falling short.

Failure is a powerful force for improvement. To make the benefits of your disappointments tangible, on your CV of failures, add a line for lessons learned. For example, next to “Did not win Olympic Marathon,” you might write, “Learned I am a lousy runner.” This practice will train you to see the progress in each setback and remind you later that the sting of a rejection is temporary, but the learning you gain can be permanent.

3. Focus on Your Core Values
Worthy goals are generally motivated by something deeper than success. Focusing on your core values helps you understand why you took a risk in seeking a goal in the first place. “I am a loving person—I make myself vulnerable and therefore can be hurt” is both more constructive and probably more accurate than “Someone hurt me, so I give up.” It also balances the cost of experiencing failure with the reward of remembering the person you seek to be.

Some people face more losses and disappointments than others, due to luck, circumstances, judgment, or even a tendency to take a lot of risks. But no matter who you are, failure will find you. The question is not whether you will fail but how you will use your failures.

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