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Feb 06, 2019

Why Failure is One of the Best Things to Happen to Us

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

Failure, as much as we hate to admit it, is part of life. But failure, like Winston Churchill said, does not have to be fatal. In fact, the way we perceive our failures can actually help us succeed in life!

Yes, you read that right. Our failures can help us succeed in life, but this depends on how we choose to see our failures.

As I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, the mind and brain have what scientists call a natural “optimism bias”. This optimism bias enables us to perceive failure as an acknowledgment of what not to doversus what I did wrong and how bad this is. For example, I was having a discussion with one of my daughters the other day and she told me about something I had done years ago that really upset her. As I listened, I saw I had failed her at a very critical time in her teenage years, obviously unintentionally, but the fact remained that I had still failed her. Instead of feeling overwhelmed with guilt and falling apart at my failure, I listened and chose to see my failure as a chance to say sorry and improve my relationship with her. I reconceptualized my failure, seeing it as a chance to do a mental “autopsy” on what I did to make sure I never do that again. Essentially, I used this situation as a chance to help my daughter (and myself!) process and reconceptualize her wound and heal. In the end, I wasn’t crippled with guilt; I was charged with energy to see so many great possibilities could come out of a potentially negative situation. 

It is important to remember that we do not have to get stuck if things don’t go our way, because there are always other opportunities! We live in a world of infinite potential, with the creative power in our minds to make possibilities into realities—in my book, Think, Learn, SucceedI call this the possibility mindset. This type of mindset is intrinsically hopeful; you just keep on keeping on until you are successful, while setting in place a way of analyzing why you failed so you can learn what not to do next time. 

Indeed, being intentional about learning every time you fail is essential to success. This will allow you to appreciate the journey (with all its bumps!) and the destination. In fact, every bump can become an opportunity to learn, grow our brains, and develop mental resilience! 

So how do we change our thinking about failure, and how do we make failure work for us?

  • Reconceptualize your failures. Each time you become aware of a failure, tell yourself that failures are attempts; attempts are results and worthwhile knowledge that has been gained. Thomas Edison, for instance, tried about a thousand times before he succeeded in inventing the light bulb. When asked about his “failures,” Edison declared that, “I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!” He reconceptualized his failures as successes, because they helped him gain worthwhile knowledge. As I mentioned above, I reconceptualized the way I had failed my daughter in the past as an opportunity to say sorry, change and improve my relationship with her. So, as you become aware of your guilt and shame, it is important to choose to reconceptualizethem. For example, think about how you can learn from this experience, improve yourself or help others with similar issues. Choose to reconceptualize the negative into positive, and over time you will build this into a thinking habit! 
  • Learn from the past. Be intentional about learning from your failures. When something doesn't go as planned, take a few minutes to think about the situation, asking yourself why it happened like it did, talking about the it with yourself or a loved one, and thinking about how you can improve the situation to get an outcome you desire. Writing down your thoughts in a journal can be a helpful way to examine any given situation and decide how to learn from past failures. Take actionable steps to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again!
  • Imagine the possibilities. Deliberately and intentionally practice imagining possibilities in every situation and write them down. This is easy to do because you will always face situations where you will need to see multiple outcomes and adjust your decisions accordingly. The more you do this, the more you will find yourself applying this “possibility mindset” in your life. If one door closes, you will start seeing another one open! Indeed, make it a game to see how many possibilities you can think of for any one situation, and practice doing this every day. For example, maybe you are in a reorganizational phase in your business; imagine 4-5 (or more!) different possibilities and write them down. When you go into the actual process of strategizing, you will have a springboard to start from, even if one strategy doesn’t work out 

Of course, it’s not news to you that we all have failed, and we all have challenges we have to face. However, being able to see possibilities in the midst of your failures, and being intentional about learning, is a game-changer—it helps us persevere and be successful in every area of our lives!

For more information on how to develop healthy habits and mindsets that deal with failure see my book Think, Learn, Succeed

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