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Transforming Failure


My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.

– Bono

I agree with Bono. Surviving a mistake or a perceived failure and transforming it into wisdom or a life lesson is inspiring. If you do an Internet search for quotes or articles on failure, there seems to be a never-ending supply. Like love, heartbreak, or jealousy, failure is a natural and challenging part of the human experience that none of us is exempt from.

Failure can be bitter and hard to swallow. We often cannot accept it very easily. It is a strong and intense experience that we may hide from, or refuse to admit to others because we are embarrassed, shamed, or defeated. However, like other bitter things found in nature, such as the coffee or cocoa bean, we have to process it to extract its rich gifts and reframe it into an insight, strength, or life lesson.

We all have different experiences with failure. Some of us are afraid even to begin an endeavor out of fear that an idea or plan won’t work out. I openly admit I used to find myself falling into this category. My view of failure changed profoundly and was redefined when working with a personal trainer. Like many trainers, he utilized the word “failure” differently than most of us.

“Going to failure” in the context of personal training means to do an exercise or go through a workout until you are no longer physically capable of completing another repetition with good form. In this context it is not only a good thing, it is a great thing, and always congratulated with a high five and an “Awesome!”

Inventor Charles F. Kettering once said “one fails forward toward success,” and that is just what I planned to do. I started to make it my goal to “fail,” knowing that I was transferring this experience into my daily living. I wanted to get practice failing because I knew it would lead me to success.

Going through the act of physically failing and understanding it was bringing me physical benefit. It allowed me to reap benefits from mistakes in everyday life. I have learned and applied knowledge gained from situations that ended differently than intended, rather than give up or be hard on myself.

Processing the feelings associated with failure can uncover and cultivate valuable strength that can be shared with others for their benefit and ours. This can be seen at any 12-step meeting. Everyone starts attending for the same reason — because the addiction was bigger than they were and life had become unmanageable.

Many walk in with shame and embarrassment, believing they have failed themselves, life, relationship, or career. However, many recovered members are able to speak with abundant pride about their transformation and recovery. They are able to wear it like a badge of honor, and rightfully so. They can speak without shame about their lives prior to abstinence and about their mistakes, and give examples of how different and meaningful their experiences are now. Without the roughness and bitterness of the past, or the experience of transforming their perceived failure into knowledge and awareness, they would not have the same inspiring stories and insights that can be so healing and motivating for other members struggling with addiction.

Another example of transforming failure comes from a client who stayed at a job much longer than was healthy for her, which led to frequent physical illness and depression. She expressed feeling like a failure because she was not doing the job she planned to do while in school, felt she made little impact, and was judgmental of herself for experiencing depression.

The client did not find another job before resigning and made a gutsy decision leave her position in spite of pending unemployment. She left her position with the inner conflict of feeling courageous and feeling defeat that mounted as time went by and she had not found a job that was in alignment with who she was.

Eventually, she found a career path where she was able to be herself and put the judgmental voices to rest. She remains empowered by her decision and frequently advocates for others to trust their intuition about challenging decisions even when it might look like failure to another. Her once-perceived failure now serves as inspiration for those around her experiencing similar challenges. She used the process of therapy to stay connected with her intuition and authentic self while reframing her judgment of failure into a story of bold success.

Everyone who ever failed somehow and was able to reframe the experience into something positive are all heroes, just as Bono said. It can take a lot of brave honesty to go through therapy, a 12-step program, or take any healing measure and look at intense experiences like failure. It is no easy task to be so honest with oneself, much less with another person. When you have a safe space to share, nonjudgmental witnesses, and the chance to share your experience, healing can take place and failure can be cultivated into a powerful perspective shift.

Transforming Failure

Alicia Hoffman

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APA Reference
Hoffman, A. (2018). Transforming Failure. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Feb 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.