Practising failure – the key to bouncing back

Many people will tell you they don’t like to fail. They might even tell you that they don’t fail. But increasingly research is showing us that practising failure is a critical skill to help us succeed – and that’s as true in our careers as anywhere else. So is practising failure the key to bouncing back?

Failure as a mindset

Author and journalist Elizabeth Day hosts How To Fail, a podcast where a wide spectrum of people, from original feminist Gloria Steinem to deep thinker Alain do Botton, via Queen of the Jungle Scarlett Moffatt, lay bare their failures. The idea is a simple one repeated in every show intro, that learning how to fail helps us to succeed better. The failures range from the spectacular to the seemingly mundane, but there’s something to take from every one of them. Day published her Sunday Times Bestseller book of the same title in 2019. One of my favourite quotes from her book is that each failure is a lesson wrapped up in a mistake.

After the disaster of the Columbia space shuttle, which broke apart over Texas in 2003, NASA had every reason to want to move on and not look back. Instead, one of its astronauts, Dr Charles Camarda, believes the tragedy helped forge a new approach at NASA – that failing creates knowledge and understanding that doesn’t come with success.

So how can failure help with your next career step?

Practising failure

Finding small ways to practice failure can help us adjust and cope better when we fail in other circumstances. In the context of your career that could be failure to get a promotion or that job you really wanted, or it could be just getting something totally wrong, which happens to the best of us!

The problem with beating ourselves up about failure is that it provides fuel for our imposters and erodes confidence. A shortcut to alleviating this is having a growth mindset (a concept articulated by Professor Carol Dweck), which focuses on what can be learned from the failure and embracing mistakes as necessary for growth and development. The approach advocates phrases like, “I can’t do that yet,”, quietening the imposter and building up confidence.

Can you find small ways to practice failure as a means to feeling more comfortable about it when it happens for real? How about learning a new skill – knitting would be a great example – or trying to help teenagers with their maths homework!

Why practice failure?

Many experts will tell you fail stands for First Attempt In Learning. It’s not meant to be an end point, but a step along the journey to success. When you learned to ride a bike you didn’t give up the first time you fell off. You got back on again and tried again. Unwittingly you figured out what was working each time and practiced more of that, until you were riding around almost without thinking about how.

As parents we encourage our children to get back on the bike, to try again. We assure them they can do it, they just need to keep trying. Helping children to learn not to be crushed by failure is a critical life skill. They need to experience setbacks throughout their child and teenage years in order to build the resilience to cope.

We can all get better at failing, stop being so critical of ourselves when things go wrong, and choose to see it as a way to help us learn and guide our next attempt.

Both children and adults need to be able to ask themselves how did I cope with that previous failure? And what helped me get back my positive mindset? Then apply those lessons to recent failure.

Failure + resilience leads to success

Jeff Bezos CEO at Amazon says that failure and innovation are inseparable twins. Ask any research scientist about failure and they will have a long list of their own and their team’s failures. Right now, some of the cleverest people in the world are failing daily in an attempt to create a vaccine for Covid-19. They just see it as part of the process. The magic ingredient is the resilience to keep trying, knowing that more failure is inevitable.

Reflecting on your past failures and how you overcame them can help you develop strategies to help you cope with future challenges and setbacks. Coming back from failure builds resilience and resilience leads to success. So regularly practising failure can help you handle it better when that job rejection comes your way, you failed to get that promotion, or you didn’t make it through a restructure programme. It can help set the context that not every failure is a disaster. And it can help you bounce back into your job search more quickly.

If you need support or to talk through how to practice failure – the key to bouncing back, give me a call to arrange a free chemistry session by phone or online.


Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

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