The art of failure

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
When we fail, we know we're making progress, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

I've written about failure before, it seems to be something that keeps coming back.

I often hear people saying "I don't want to fail", "I'm scared of failing", "what if I'm a failure?".

We seem to be fed a diet of instant success. Let's just remember that nobody puts on social media the things in their life that aren't going well or the things that didn't work out as they planned.

We don't see the time, effort and money people put into making their ventures, projects, education and jobs a success. We don't hear from corporations about the products and the ideas that didn't fly. It's estimated that about 90% of all product innovations fail.

That means we only get to see and use the 10% that were successful!

Sweden has, and shortly Los Angeles will have, a Museum of Failure. Exhibits within the museum include items from Apple, Nokia, Sony, Harley-Davidson, Bic and Google to name a few.

Curator Sam West (a psychologist) has emphasised the importance of making these failures visible to the world to help us understand that failure is commonplace and something we should not be afraid of. He doesn't believe that focusing only on success is particularly helpful to us.

In a balanced world we would look at and learn from what didn't go well. Therein lies the usefulness of failure. "Failure" provides feedback and gives us a chance to reflect and rejig things in order to try again.

Everyone experiences failure, the problem arises when we equate "experiencing" failure with "being" a failure. We take failure on as something personal rather than acknowledging the difficult and uncomfortable emotions that the "experience" of failure brings up for us.

It would be helpful and healthier if our society could begin to see failure as something useful rather than something useless.

As humans, we need failure in order to progress. Imagine if as a toddler we stopped trying to walk after our first unsuccessful attempt? We'd still be crawling around on our hands and knees.

From an early age we tend to be taught that failure is bad. By failing we're less than others, we let people down, we don't measure up to expectations etc etc and that's bad.

We can begin to fear failure. Failure causes us emotional discomfort or embarrassment. We begin to do anything we can to avoid failure and in doing so we become more anxious and more fearful and less likely to keep trying new things; our world and the possibilities it holds shrink down.

We might become so hesitant and so nervous that whenever we do try we are more likely to fail. They are both nasty spirals to get sucked into.

So how can we reframe our thoughts and views about failure? After all, failure isn't going anywhere fast!

Firstly it's useful to remember that everybody fails and we ourselves have failed many times before. It is also useful to remember that we have survived those failures. We failed a lot when we were children learning life's basics for the first time, but we tried and tried again until we succeeded.

In the tech world they talk about failing forward and failing fast. I like that as a concept. It gives me a sense of positivity rather than hopelessness and suggests that by figuring out the failures we get to the successes faster.

Understanding that the "experience" of failing doesn't mean "we are a failure" is an important piece of building the emotional resilience jigsaw.

What is "failing" anyway? It's something that will be different to each and every one of us; we will all have our own definition. Try to avoid getting enmeshed in someone else's concepts about failure or believing them if they tell you you're a failure.

There is a saying that there is no failure only feedback. Feedback gives us a chance to reflect on what's happened and look at how we can do things differently in order to succeed in the future.

Of course, we don't have control over every little aspect of our lives and circumstances. Perhaps there was nothing we could have done differently. Recognising this can help stop us from blaming ourselves for something we had no control over.

On the other hand, if there were things we could change then it is up to us to change them next time we try. After all, doing something the same way over and over and expecting a different result is just plain daft, time wasting and energy consuming.

Taking the time to reflect can help us to identify our natural strengths and abilities and also those areas in which we need to get assistance or undertake some further learning.

Failure can help us understand what's really important in our lives. It can strip away everything we don't in all honesty need. In accepting failure we can be open to our own fallibility and understand that we're not perfect nor do we have to be. It can be uncomfortable, it can be embarrassing, but neither of those emotions are likely to permanently harm us and they will pass.

The only way to ever avoid failure is to never try anything. I'm not sure that constitutes living; it's more like failure by default. Overcoming and going beyond failure helps you understand that you will survive, and not just when times are good and things are going our way. It highlights our coping abilities, strengths, determination and discipline, characteristics and qualities that nobody can take away from us.

Success is not guaranteed but I can guarantee you won't succeed if you don't try. You might fail along the way, you might succeed, or you might end up somewhere you never expected to and maybe that'll be OK too.

So next time you "fail", first try acknowledging and naming the feelings you have. Secondly, stop and take a look at what you were trying to achieve: does it match your values and strengths set? What steps did you take? What do you need to do differently?

Don't be afraid of asking for help and advice.

Lastly, with the information gathered, draw up a new plan and then, in true Kiwi style, get stuck in.


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