Our culture’s way of celebrating success can be pretty one-dimensional. We love a good success story, but we’re less sure of how to talk about the failures, missteps, and stumbles that are necessary on the way to success. If you look at someone you admire — an athlete, entertainer, business leader, anyone — it’s easy to think, looking at them now, that they found their way quickly, easily and without overcoming any real obstacles. Or maybe they know something we don’t, allowing them to skip over the challenges, critics and self-judgments the rest of us face.
But the truth is, no one is exempt from failure. What matters is how we respond to it. And if we really want to understand what it takes to succeed, we need to rethink our relationship with failure — most notably, how we can embrace it. Because as anyone who’s achieved something great will tell you, the road to success, with very few exceptions, is anything but a straight line. And the wrong turns, stalls, and all-out disasters along the way (at least they seem that way at the time) aren’t tangential — they’re the essential learning opportunities that can help you live and work with more clarity, perspective and wisdom.
If you work in a high-stakes environment with strong performers and exacting standards, you might feel that if you fall short, you’ll drag the team down, appear weak, or even be fired. That’s why learning how to embrace failure in a way that moves you — and others — forward is so important. It’s a concept that’s becoming more and more accepted — as with “psychological safety,” Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson’s notion that teams that allow themselves to make more mistakes in a “climate of openness” frequently perform better. Think about it: if you could choose between a work environment where mistakes, risks and big ideas felt dangerous and one that felt safe, which would you choose? Which would spur you to be the best, most innovative, most creative version of yourself?
Subhed: Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Embracing Failure
Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.
This Thrive Guide will show you exactly how to embrace and learn from failure — not only looking back, but as it’s happening.
For many of us, even the fear of failure can be paralyzing. Conquering this fear doesn’t mean living a life where we we never fail. It means changing our attitude toward failure. When we understand that our failures don’t define us, and that they can in fact propel us toward success, we’re more creative, innovative, and willing to take on truly important challenges that can take us in interesting directions. Our Thrive Global Microsteps — simple, science-backed changes you can start incorporating into your life today — will help you shift your attitude to make this possible.
We’ll introduce you to the New Role Models who are living proof that failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone to success. For example, Alan Alda told Thrive that improv comedy has shaped his view of failure: “There’s really no failing in improv. You just go on to the next thing.” Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh told Thrive that reframing failures as opportunities is key to overcoming challenges. And Wanda Holland Greene, head of the Hamlin School, told Thrive she sees failure as an opportunity, not a liability. “I’m not sure that I have ever overcome failure,” she said. “I integrate moments of failure into my life and I harness the life lessons to become a stronger person.”
In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology that can help you get into a mindset of embracing failure and learning from difficult experiences.
Our Managerial Take-aways section offers advice for managers who want to help their direct reports improve their performance — and at the same time create an environment where people feel like they can be creative and take risks, even if that means failing from time to time.
By the end of this guide, you’ll have the tools and practical advice you need to view failure in a different, more positive light — and use that perspective to succeed in meaningful ways.
Subhed: Why More and More Successful People Are Opening Up About Embracing Failure
Think back to a time you didn’t measure up in some way — to your own standards or somebody else’s. Professionally, have you ever lost a job, or fallen short of expectations at work? Launched a product or led a project with high hopes, only to see it crash and burn? How did it make you feel?
In all likelihood, it hurt — badly. While success feels like an end in itself, failure can lead to endless probing and analysis. It can make us question our abilities, worth and larger purpose. Where did I go wrong? Am I wasting my time? And it’s all too easy to go from failing at something to viewing ourselves as failures — as if it defines us.
However, failure has tremendous value if we approach it with a certain mindset. Research shows it is an essential part of the process that leads to growth, development, innovation and eventual success. The world’s most successful people, in every field, speak frequently about failure’s role in their lives and careers, and how it helped them become more reflective, innovative, and successful. If you look at the life stories of successful people — ranging from Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling to Dr. Seuss and Michael Jordan — you’ll often find an instance (and usually many instances) of rejection or failure.
As Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global’s Founder and CEO, has said about the launch of The Huffington Post: “I watched HuffPost come alive to mixed reviews, including some very negative ones, like the reviewer who called the site ‘the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate rolled into one.’ She called the site a ‘failure that is simply unsurvivable.’ It’s an illustration of one of my deepest beliefs, which is that we must dare to take risks and to fail, as many times as it takes, along the way to success.”
In the world of business and entrepreneurship, failure and the ability to rebound from it have been enshrined as virtues. When nine out of ten startups fail, founders of companies that didn’t pan out have taken to publicly reflecting on what went wrong, a phenomenon that, as Fortune put it, “has become so common that it’s practically a Silicon Valley cliché.” Mottos like “fail fast, fail often” and “fail forward” have become accepted wisdom.
So let’s look at some of the research and thinking behind how embracing failure can, counterintuitively, help you improve your performance and be more resilient.
Our attitude toward failure is learned from an early age. According to a 2016 Stanford University study, kids learn their attitudes about failure from their parents. While some parents may respond to a child’s failure — a bad grade on a test, for example — by saying, “Oh, too bad, I guess you can’t be good at everything,” others might respond more constructively, focusing on the process and on opportunities to do better. The latter approach can help children see that qualities like intelligence are not fixed — failure can be used to improve ourselves.
In education, there are vibrant conversations about the importance of allowing children to fail in order to build grit and resilience — especially in elite academic environments where a bad grade or single misstep can seem to derail hopes for a lifetime of accomplishment and excellence.
In the world of science, where hypotheses are tested and theories may turn out to be wildly off, knowing how to learn from failure is essential. When a landing craft crashes into Mars, for example, that’s not a signal to stop exploring, but to keep going. “Since the 1960s, more than half of US, Russian and European attempts to operate craft on the Martian surface have failed,” the Guardian notes.
“To be a scientist requires resilience to unrelenting, unromantic failure,” writes biologist Maryam Zaringhalam on Scientific American. “The pursuit of science hinges on the brazen presumption that we mere mortals can uncover the secrets of the universe. When we dare to devote our lives to educated stabs in the dark, science is bound to humble us.”
In short, we have to learn to embrace failure if we’re going to do big, bold, and ambitious things.
“The commonly held view is that failure is to be avoided because success is to be achieved, and both cannot coexist,” wrote Dr. Joseph Loscalzo wrote in an editorial aimed at the scientific community. But “failure has at least as important a role in our experience, education, and professional development as success—if we would only learn from it.”
Subhed: Commit To Making A Change
Here are three microsteps you can take to stop fearing failure and start embracing it.
1. Reflect on a time one of your own failures led to eventual success.
In the moment, failures can be crushing and depleting. Put them in perspective with a specific instance from your past to get a rejuvenating reminder that, over and over again, you’ve turned failure into success.
2. Read the biography of someone you admire.
There’s no better way to remind yourself that the life stories of successful, accomplished, inspiring people are often filled with failures, missteps and setbacks.
3. Set aside five minutes each day for meditation.
Building a meditation habit will prepare you for the tough moments you may not see coming. When you’re operating from a place of calm and clarity, you’ll be able to put your failures in perspective and bounce back quickly.