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How to fail — an important life skill

Do you know how to fail?

Americans seems to have an ingrained script that all failure is bad. We like to see ourselves on a continual growth chart, always moving upward, with no setbacks. That’s part of why tougher economic times, like our present situation, can seem like a terrible aberration, something that should not be happening.

Well, it is happening, and like so much else, what matters most is what we do with it. More specifically, what really matters is the meaning we give to the so-called failures in our lives. We learn so much more from our mistakes than from our successes, and this is true in large things and in small things. Everyone who has achieved great things in any field of human accomplishment – sciences, arts, technology, manufacturing – has experienced failures before, and after, successes.

People we label as “resilient” bounce back from failure. Others fall into a pattern of obsessive self-blame that we call “rumination”. Can we learn to be better at failure? Almost certainly.

There are at least three main components to “failing better”. They are:

  1. controlling our emotions
  2. adjusting our thinking
  3. recalibrating our beliefs about ourselves and what we can do in the world

So if we can learn to pick ourselves and recover, we don’t fall into a pit of depression after failure. If we can learn to see ourselves as on a journey, with different types of learning experiences, we will not give ourselves overly negative messages about failure. And if we let our experiences teach us about our strengths and weaknesses, we can improve our skills, make changes to our environments and work situations, and adjust to the changes life throws at us.

What about our kids? In recent years, we seem overly focused on protecting children from failure. There is a book called “A Nation of Wimps” that examines the ramifications for our country and our culture of such a philosophy. Closer to home, most of us are concerned about what is best for our own children, and what will help them grow to be healthy, happy and yes, successful people. The key likes in a healthy balance of gradual exposure to risk, and a willingness to let them try things that may or may not turn out in the end. A true sense of self-esteem is not based on always feeling wonderful, or on never failing. Rather, it is based on a sense of competence and a calm sense of having at least most of the skills necessary to face life’s challenges. Surviving age-appropriate failures, and getting up and trying again, gives us that.

Here’s to your next failure! Like so much else, it’s an opportunity for growth!

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