7 Ways to Fail Successfully

Failed? So what. Here's how to survive tough times

by Liza Mundy
ways to survive failure image
Photograph: Shutterstock.com

Let yourself feel devastated
Feelings of anger, grief and mortification have an evolutionary purpose. “They stimulate new actions,” says social psychologist Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. When we are sad or ashamed or frustrated, we are hearing our psyche tell us to adapt. Rather than bottling up your feelings, Roese recommends letting yourself feel sharp anger or disappointment, which helps prevent prolonged regret.

Don’t brood
“Wallowing in past failures is a recipe for a dysfunctional response,” says Roese. If you catch yourself ruminating, use cognitive behavioral techniques to take your mind in a different direction. Do a math problem in your head; think about tasks facing you later in the day. Psychologist Tamar Chansky recommends establishing a mental board of directors whose advice can help change your internal narrative. “Choose four people and imagine yourself explaining the situation to them,” Chansky says. “It could be Oprah, the Dalai Lama, somebody in fiction.” Then imagine the counsel they might give.

Skip the shame
Shame is a valid emotion, but it can prevent us from innovating. Bombing a speech, getting dumped by a partner, flubbing a presentation—these are embarrassing, but they are also part of trying. You need to see failure as a sign of courageous effort, says Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset. You can develop resilience by welcoming criticism, admitting vulnerability, fighting perfectionism and discounting (at least to some extent) what others think.

Know when to quit
When you are pursuing a goal and fall short, it can be hard to know whether to keep trying or go after something different. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, talks about a pivot, or “a change in strategy without a change in vision.” By this he means don’t give up right away. First, see if a minor adjustment works. “If you try everything you can think of to make the vision materialize and you run out of things to try,” he says, “then maybe it’s time to change the strategy.”

Don’t see failure as a referendum
Avoid what the experts call characterological self-blame. Instead of thinking, I’m inept and incompetent, says Roese, understand that failures are just an outcome; they’re not the final word on your worth or ability. Also, don’t think of failure as the beginning of a trend. Making a bad financial investment does not call into question your value as a spouse or parent. It doesn’t even mean you’re a bad investor. Failure can be a one-time event.

Don’t judge yourself while you are doing
Save the self-critiquing for when you have finished. “You don’t want to be performing and criticizing the performance at the same time,” says Chansky.

Be patient
The benefits of failure may take time to flower. Early in her career, Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, and some colleagues developed an educational math video game they were determined to bring to market, but no one would buy it. So they let the project lapse. She couldn’t see the upside of this failure until a decade or so later, when she was advising an organization involved in online learning and found that her insights into computerized education were translatable to this new playing field. “I was able to add value in a way that I never would have been able to do if I hadn’t gone through that process,” she says.

Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock.com

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First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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