We live in a culture dominated by stories of success. We see it everywhere we turn — on TV, in magazines, online, in the daily newspaper. Entire generations are growing up thinking they cannot fail. That success isn’t just the result of doing well, it is a guarantee that we can reach any goal we set.
Now I’m all for optimism, don’t get me wrong. But as a pragmatist, I can’t help but sprinkle a little reality into an optimist’s dreams.
You will fail at some point in your life. You will be fired from a job you care about, or be rejected by a partner in a relationship you thought had a future. You will suffer from doing too much, or doing too little, all of which won’t matter. You will be rejected by something or someone you really want. And it will hurt. It might even hurt like hell.
What do you do now?
First, understand that failure or rejection doesn’t mean the end of the world. We humans have a way of generalizing things to be larger than they really are. When we are rejected or fail at a goal we set for ourselves, it often feels like it was something very personal — “I am a bad person, I suck. I can’t even do this one thing.” We turn it into something that it isn’t.
Don’t get over it right away. Too many “experts” say you just need to “learn from the experience” and move on. While that’s ultimately true, that’s not going to help in the moment of failure or rejection.
Embrace the feeling — feel bad for yourself. Cry. Talk to your friends about how much it stinks you didn’t achieve your goal. This is all a part of a grief process — the process of losing something you really wanted. You have to come to terms with the loss on your own time, and in your own manner.
Then, move on and understand that as trite as it is to say it, you can’t have a life filled only with good experiences. Sure, we all want to maximize those and minimize the bad, but most of it is out of our control. Decisions made by others are not something we can change — we can only influence them. Once made, we have to accept them even when they don’t go our way. Bad experiences put good experiences in sharp perspective.
Failure can also act as a great motivator for the future. Don’t want to fail again? There are times where you can actually change the future based upon what you learn from failure. For instance, if you fail an exam, more often than not the reason might be found in your study habits (or lack thereof). If a relationship goes bad, are there things that you could’ve done differently to have helped it? While it may not help in the present situation, it may give you some guidance for future situations.
Most of the time, the lesson you can learn from a failure or rejection isn’t something you’re going to recognize right away. It may takes weeks or even months to see the meaning behind the rejection or failure.
Of course, not every failure or rejection has something to teach us. Sometimes we get laid off from a job because of a bad economy. It has little to do with us. It still hurts of course, but it’s not your fault. If you don’t get the promotion or into the college you wanted, it may also be other factors beyond your own personal characteristics as well (such as the sheer number of people vying for the position). There are failures where I learned a lot from, and then there are failures that had little to teach me.
Failure and rejection are a part of everybody’s life. The key is not to overgeneralize a situation or personalize it inappropriately (two common cognitive distortions). Embrace failure, accept it as a part of a normal life, and take away something (if there’s something to take away) that you can use to your advantage in the future.
Read the Boston Globe editorial that inspired this entry: Failure: A lesson worth teaching