Failure isn’t so much a ‘state’ or ‘event’ as it is a tool. Failure can provide takeaways that could help set you up for success.

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If you’re human, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced failure at some point in your life. It pretty much comes with the territory.

Accepting that failure is inevitable is one thing. Learning from failure and moving past it is another — especially when the failure is fresh. For many, learning from failure takes time and perspective.

But when we can look at our failures from a place of curiosity, they can be our greatest teachers, says clinical psychologist Dr. Shauna Pollard, who runs a private practice in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Paying attention to where we went wrong can help us fine-tune our process before we try again,” Pollard says.

1. Emotional intelligence (EQ)

Failing comes with a range of emotions. When you fail, you might feel:

  • guilty for letting people down
  • relieved you don’t have to complete such a big task anymore
  • nervous to have to try again
  • anxious, or have anticipation about the future and what it might mean to try again
  • ashamed for failing, especially if you feel pressure from friends or family to succeed
  • disappointed in yourself because you had higher expectations for yourself
  • grateful that you had the experience and to be able to learn from it

Failures can bring a greater sense of emotional awareness. You might have felt sad, or the many emotions that come with failure, for a long time, explains Katie Ziskind, marriage and family therapist, and trauma specialist in Niantic, Connecticut.

“It might also help you develop a sense of self-love,” Ziskand adds, as you might need to listen and respond compassionately to yourself, or perhaps manage unrealistic expectations.

2. Humility

When you fail, most folks often have to ask for help, which can be a lesson in humility and an opportunity to grow on an interpersonal level.

A 2020 study of full-time employees found that intrinsic motivation and self-determination predict learning from failures. This in turn leads to enhanced self-development.

The research found a combination of internal motivation and determination means employees who are more dedicated to their jobs and get satisfaction from learning new skills are more likely to utilize feedback from failures to improve their performance and productivity.

The study also found that managers can help employees learn from failure through caring and compassionate leadership.

“It can be cathartic to fail because it puts you in a humble position, at the bottom of the ladder,” notes Ziskand, “where you can embrace a beginner’s mindset. Realizing you don’t know much, or need help from a teacher to learn more about a given area or skill set, can be helpful for growing humility.”

3. Resiliency

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

— Thomas A. Edison

Failing can teach you how to bounce back. It could help you discover you won’t fall apart. That you have what it takes to get back up and go at it again. These sentiments are fruits of resilence.

Recognizing when you are failing and picking yourself up from there is a key skill in overcoming the failure itself,” says Ziskind.

In her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, talks about the importance of learning from failure at a young age.

“Raising children who are hopeful and who have the courage to be vulnerable means stepping back and letting them experience disappointment, deal with conflict, learn how to assert themselves, and have the opportunity to fail. …

“If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.”

— Brené Brown

4. Empathy

To overcome failure, it’s essential to understand that it’s a part of being human, notes Ziskind.

“A failure can make you want to quit and can paralyze some people,” she notes. Failure presents an opportunity to develop and practice the skill of emotional resiliency.

A typical response to failure is self-blame or an attempt to gain something positive from the experience. But it’s important to approach failure with empathy, giving yourself the understanding that it’s OK to fail.

You can learn to accept setbacks by reminding yourself that life is messy, and by no means are you meant to be perfect.

It’s important to separate failure as a process from how we view ourselves as individuals, adds Pollard, who works on reframing with many of her clients.

“We are not failures, even though we may have failed at a task,” she notes.

Failure, by definition, is a “lack of success.” It can be a result or, simply, an attempt that was unsuccessful.

In most cases, it’s also a prerequisite for success, according to Pollard.

“Failures and success often co-occur. Most people don’t have one without the other,” she notes.

Failures with famous folks

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We must fail, at times, to learn and grow.

But what’s the right amount of failure? According to a 2019 study in the journal Nature Communications, it’s when failure occurs 15% of the time.

Researchers looked at studies of both computers and animals and found they learned fastest in situations in which the difficulty level enabled them to respond with 85% accuracy. They call this the “85% rule for optimal learning.”

If things are too easy, and you’re right 100% of the time, there is nothing new to learn. Too hard, and you still may not learn anything new.

The research shows that people can optimize learning at 85%. More than 15%, then not only is learning likely not occurring, but folks might give up altogether because of repeated failures.

According to Pollard, there are many reasons why people fail or fall short of their goals. It could be:

  • bad timing
  • lack of preparedness
  • conditions for success not currently in place
  • lack of knowledge about what it takes to succeed
  • lack of support
  • not enough tries to achieve a consistent effort
  • giving up too quickly

Why is it important to learn from failure?

When you fail at something, it means you’re trying, says Pollard.

“Trying is better than not trying,” she notes. “As you make active efforts to reach your goal, you get to see what works and what doesn’t work. The lessons we learn from our mistakes are far greater and more impactful than most information you can read in a book or get from someone else.”

Failure is a part of the human experience. Personal and professional failure can increase feelings of anxiety and self-doubt for many people.

If you’re feeling stuck or having a hard time overcoming failure, working with a therapist or licensed mental health counselor can help you overcome limiting beliefs about yourself. It can also help you develop self-compassion and empathy for yourself, and find a new sense of inspiration to try again.

And if fear of failing gets in your way, consider what Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, said:

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

— Jack Canfield