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Learning to Fail Gracefully

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I'm not writing about failure today because I failed at anything in particular recently. I've failed at plenty, though. I've dropped out of races, gone through dozens of job interviews that never resulted in offers, submitted my writing to publications only to have it rejected time after time after time. I've failed tests and I've failed in the workplace and I've failed in relationship with others. There is no area of life that goes untouched by failure, so we may as well embrace it. Failure, to me, is synonymous with persistence. You only fail if you fail to try again.

According to Professor Martin Covington of The University of California, the fear of failure is directly linked to our sense of self-worth. Professor Covington’s research on students, published in the Handbook of Motivation at School, found that one way we protect our self-worth is by believing we are competent, and by convincing others of it, too. The ability to achieve is therefore critical in maintaining self-worth. Failing to perform can make us feel unable and unworthy. We often hear "fake it 'til you make it," but unless you believe that you are competent, no amount of "faking it" will ever help you make it.

If you happen to fail once, that may be an easy enough shot at your self-worth to overcome. But what if you fail over and over again? Professor Covington also found that those who repeatedly fail will engage in specific practices to preserve their self-worth, such as making excuses for failing, or engaging in defense mechanism (a common one is blaming others for their failure).

Learning to accept failure and rejection has served me well in my career and in my life as an athlete. When I dropped out of a100 miler last summer, I signed up for another on the car ride home. And when I don't make a sale, or when someone I cold call hangs up on me, or when a prospective customer abandons all interest, I evaluate what happened, reassess my approach, and move on. Moving on from failures and rejection is the secret to failing gracefully. Nobody cares about your failures as much as you do, so the less you internalize them, the less they will influence and impact your future attempts.

Failure is a demoralizing and upsetting experience but if you can learn to understand how failure affects your thoughts, feelings, and behavior's, you can turn it into a useful experience.

Some things to know about failure:

1. If you fail at reaching a specific goal, you'll think of it as less attainable.

This is especially damning because, after failing and learning more about how or why you failed, you're less likely to fail at your second or third (or twelfth) attempt. Failure also distorts how you perceive your own abilities and may make you think you're less capable than you are. Shifting how you think about failure can help you feel more motivated to try again.

2. The fear of failure can be caused by failing just once.

Once, during a local "woman's retreat," myself and a few dozen other women were tasked with writing down some things we were afraid of. The fear of failing was the most common fear, followed closely by a fear of success. Both can lead to unconscious self-sabotaging which (you guessed it) further hinders success. Studies also show that parents who have a fear of failure can unwittingly transmit it to their children by reacting harshly or withdrawing emotionally when their children don't live up to their expectations.

3. The healthiest response to failure is to focus on variables you can control.

Feeling in control is an antidote to feeling helpless and demoralized. So, when I spent weeks looking for jobs, taking dozens of interviews, and still had not received any offers, I doubled down on my approach. I fixed my resume, wrote and re-wrote my cover letter, went to job fairs and networking events, and eventually landed a job that lasted until I eventually outgrew it. In a job search, there are dozens of things outside of a job seeker's control, but by focusing on the things I could control, I was able to remain optimistic in the face of *many* rejections.

"Success is not a good teacher, failure makes you humble." Shah Rukh Khan

P.S. Read about fifteen famous (and successful) people who endured failure here, read about women's most common fears here, or read a New York Times piece about overcoming failure here.


Sarah Rose

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