- It’s often not failure itself that affects us, but what we do next and how we respond afterwards.
- Failing at something can make us imagine that something is harder than it actually is — even if the difficulty of a task remains completely unchanged.
- Failing is inherently unpleasant. This can bring about ‘self-sabotage’ behaviour.
We live in a culture saturated with constant messages telling us that the world is full of people who are happy and successful. Yet the reality for most of us is often different. Life is full of unpredictable ups and downs and the idea of failure is very real for many people.
Dealing with failure
Failure can take many forms.
It could be managing finances. Breakdowns in relationships. Job interviews and work performance targets. Grades at school, TAFE or uni. Cutting down on the grog or smokes. Going to the gym regularly. Spending money on retail. Gambling. Passing a driving test. Finishing that long-overdue DIY project. Staying calm and keeping it together under stress…
Failure makes us feel… like a failure. That feeling is by its very nature demoralising and can discourage us from trying again or having a go at other things.
Yet it’s not failing itself that often affects our actions in life. Rather, it’s how we respond to failure (in other words, what we do next) that can determine our behaviour and ultimately affect our outlook in life.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan
Failure is a crucial part of learning, life experience, and can even be regarded as a prerequisite for success. Here are some important things to keep in mind if we’re confronted with failure.
Failure is very much about perception
Despite what we may think, failing often does not diminish our ability to try again. In fact, the only thing that may have changed is how we feel about it — the actual difficulty of the task itself probably remains unchanged.
In one US-based study, a researcher got participants to kick a football at distance through a goal. The research found that: “People trying to kick field goals will see a much smaller goal after unsuccessful attempts… But those who kicked better judged the goal posts to be farther apart and the crossbar lower to the ground.” They concluded that performance (i.e. how successful we are at something) actually influences how hard we perceive something to be.
So next time we’re doing something tough, consider whether it really is this hard, or if it just feels that way. It’s a good way to stop failure from getting in the way of trying again.
One good way to approach failure is to think of it as a starting point or a step toward a larger goal. This can be particularly helpful when we come across people who seem to effortlessly do things that we might otherwise struggle.
That’s because a small portion of the population does have a talent for picking up and instantly doing well at certain things. It might be playing a musical instrument, sport, cooking, striking up conversations with strangers, parenting, painting or winning at video games.
It can feel demoralising to see someone do “better” than us. However, most of us are not those people. Indeed, they’ve likely devoted a large part of their life to perfecting their craft so it’s likely not worth feeling down over it.
What can you control? What can’t you control?
One of the traps of failure is that it can make us want to ‘beat ourselves up’ even if the cause of failure was outside of our control.
Consider a job interview scenario. We usually won’t know who the other candidates are, how many people applied, or even if someone known to the employer was already on the shortlist. If we think about it, feeling dejected for not getting the job makes less sense when we consider that it was likely due to something we could not change.
The key, instead, is to focus on the things we can control. For example, making sure we thoroughly research the prospective new employer, allowing plenty of extra travel time and planning the route and parking arrangements, and preparing for the interview, perhaps even asking a friend or family member to help with curveball interview questions.
Another trap of failure is that it can actually change our behaviour. The feeling of failure is an unpleasant sensation. It’s basic human nature to want to avoid that sensation which is why we may engage in what is called self-sabotage — sometimes without realising what we are doing.
Self-sabotage is a broad concept. Loosely speaking, it involves creating problems which in turn often become the excuses for not attaining some goal. Common forms of self-sabotage include putting things off or finding other ‘more important’ things to do (procrastinating); taking on too many commitments and responsibilities; obsessing on detail and perfectionism; self-medicating with food, alcohol, stimulants or other drugs; and more.
Self-sabotage is a common behaviour that can help ‘justify’ (be it to ourselves to others) failure.
Fail so as to learn… and learn how to fail
Finally — and it probably sounds clichéd — it’s vital to remember that failure is a learning experience. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketballers of all time, famously said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
There’s a valuable lesson in that. Treat failure as a setback from which you can improve.
Oddly enough, this can stop you from feeling like a failure.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.