Reframing Failure

January 25, 2017

by Kim Childs, CPPC

Last month I was helping a client prepare for a job interview, which also meant bracing for the possible question, “Can you tell me about one of your past mistakes or failures?” We discussed how to answer that question both honestly and positively, by telling a story about the growth, learning, character development or gifts that resulted from the failure.

“Oh,” said my client, brightening, “like when I tell my son that he can always learn from his mistakes, right?”

Yes, exactly, because failure is essentially feedback.

I know it doesn’t feel that way at first, and I believe in fully having our sadness, anger, disappointment and other very understandable emotions when we fail, because it’s no fun. And yet, failure is inevitable in this human life and actually part of what grows us into better, wiser people.

“Learn to fail or fail to learn,” is a quote I heard over and over from my Positive Psychology teacher Tal Ben-Shahar, who openly used his own failures and struggles as teaching moments and encouraged me and my classmates to give ourselves “permission to be human.”

In other words, failure happens and the more we get used to it, the less we’ll suffer.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, takes it a step further, writing that, “All creative success requires creative failure.” Notice that she doesn’t use the word involves, but requires. I find that both humbling and liberating, allowing me to learn from the process and allow for progress, much like Thomas Edison, who famously said of his long road to inventing the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Edison is reminding us that those 10,000 ways that didn’t work were stepping stones and essential opportunities to learn and improve his product each time. Without them, there would be no light bulb. Take that in.

Failures, setbacks and other painful life experiences can grow our wisdom, compassion, resilience and strength, if we allow them to. They may also take us to a more beautiful place. Nature gives us examples in the pearl, which is scraped and shaped by sand in the oyster, and the butterfly, which results from the complete breakdown of the caterpillar. These messy and essential processes are echoed in the Buddhist saying, “No mud, no lotus.”

It’s a mantra I need to remember each time I fail, along with the instructions to keep going.

Coach and author Marie Forleo says in this great episode of MarieTV that failure simply means you were brave enough to try something. “A fall isn’t final unless you stay on the ground,” she reminds us, adding that getting right back up means you are no longer the person who fell/failed, but the person who got back up.

Nice. I once had a powerful dream about that very notion, and it’s recounted here.

So while failures hurt and disappoint, the needn’t derail or stop us. Once we’ve had our very human reactions to them and paused to honor the success we were aiming for and the hopes and dreams that are still alive, the best thing to do is get back up, brush ourselves off, and ask, “What can I learn from this?”

Followed by that all-important question, “What’s next?”

Kim Childs, CPPC, is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, Creativity, and Midlife Transitions. Click here to learn more and schedule an initial consultation.

1 Comment

  • Deborah Sosin

    Good reminders, as always, Kim! Thanks for your wisdom.

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