7 Productive Ways to Think About Failure (That Aren’t Clichéd!)

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“Look on the bright side.” “Mistakes help you learn.” “At least you tried.”

People offer these sayings with good intent. But they may not be the most helpful when you’re grieving a genuine disappointment. At this point, they’re like saying “Everything happens for a reason” at a funeral: not a meaningful contribution, and probably not a welcome one.

It’s okay to view a failure as something tragic, something that should not have happened. You don’t have to spin it into some destined blessing. Still, a realistic reframe can help you feel better — and moving forward, do better. Here are some quotes that can help.

“Fear of failure will keep you working, thinking, striving, and relentlessly trying to be more prepared for battle. So I want you to be afraid of failing. I fear failure.”

— Jocko Willink, retired Navy SEAL, in Discipline Equals Freedom

Fearing failure doesn’t make you weak-minded. The costs of failure are real, and they are completely understandable to fear. Even someone as tough-willed as Jocko Willink can relate.

What matters is how this fear drives you to act. Are you so afraid of failure that you don’t even try? According to Willink, what’s even worse than failing, as a reflection on your character, is letting time slip by, making no progress, knowing it’s all your fault because you’re not even giving yourself a chance. When you trust that you can succeed, fear of failure will push you to put in more thought and effort; you know this extra care will pay off.

So now that you have firsthand knowledge of the pain, let it be your fuel. You know you deserve better.

“I think failure is massively overrated. Most businesses fail for more than one reason. So when a business fails, you often don’t learn anything at all because the failure was overdetermined…I think people do not actually learn very much from failure.”

— Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, as quoted in Tools of the Titans

It can be insulting to hear that a failure was a necessary lesson; it seems to trivialize what happened. Whatever was learned surely could’ve been learned much more easily, much less painfully. It’s hard to know exactly what you should’ve learned, anyway. Things could’ve gone right — would you really be worse off having “learned” less?

Put it this way: if I score 92% on an exam, I can easily go over my results, learn where I went wrong with that 8%, and retain what I just learned. But if I scored 47%, reexamining all my wrong answers won’t be as helpful; it’s too much to cram, clearly too much to try to make sense of with how little I understand. Other than a possible lesson in resilience, how did the failed test actually result in more learning?

Recognize that the real learning often doesn’t happen the moment you realize where you went wrong. It may not be until much later. Rising from defeat doesn’t just take resilience; it also calls for patience.

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways.’ Either way, nothing happens.”

— Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia

In the iconic 1959 book The Magic of Thinking Big, the Civil Aviation Administration serves as an example of what it means to “salvage something from every setback.” After every airplane crash, CAA officials gather as much information as they can, however long it takes, to determine the cause. As a result, airplanes have added hundreds of well-needed safety adjustments, and U.S. air fatalities are vanishingly rare.

Author David J. Schwartz then asks what would be different if the CAA simply said, “We’re sorry the crash occurred, but folks, that’s just the way the ball bounces.” Nothing would change! A crash could happen again for the same reasons.

You can’t predict every way that things could go wrong. But if you predict some ways, you can add safeguards— thank goodness failure can reveal where they’re needed.

“I see one of the failures in myself and in other people like me is where you do something wrong — you do it the wrong way or you do it for the wrong reasons — but if you don’t experience the failure, it doesn’t change the fact that it was the wrong thing to do. You’re really just deferring that failure and maybe increasing its magnitude.”

— Ryan Holiday, of The Daily Stoic, interviewed by Ozan Varol

Uber had to deal with this the hard way, as Holiday goes on to explain. Each of Uber’s ongoing wrongdoings, on its own, seemed minor, so the company didn’t take proper action. But eventually, they all compounded, creating a catastrophe much more unmanageable than simply handling each issue on its own time.

It’s easy to compare your envisioned success to your real loss, but harder to compare the real outcome to even worse losses and realize how the possibility of that outcome was also very real. This isn’t just another iteration of “It could’ve been worse.” In this case, by getting you to reevaluate and take action, the moment of failure itself is what saves you from something worse.

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”

— Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

This passage really needs no more justification. Wow. What a powerful reframe.

Here, a “system” is a routine, a one-day-at-a-time process. If you failed to reach your destination, recall what your system was to get there. When you planned to do something, then did it, and kept doing that day after day, wasn’t that feat a success in itself?

“When you try to do something big, it’s hard to fail completely.”

— Tim Ferriss, The Four-Hour Workweek

Let’s go back to my earlier example of the 47% on a test. If that test were for a famously difficult theoretical computer science course at MIT, that failure doesn’t look like so much of a loss. The 47% is probably 0% stuff I would’ve been able to answer correctly before taking the course.

It’s no wonder that increasingly, college applications and job interviews ask applicants to describe a past failure. A history of failing reveals a history of trying bold new things.

Say your “failure” was an endeavor that involved coming up with something creative, building a website, learning how to build a consumer base, and above all, persevering at something original, driven by self-discipline. The fact that it ended, as endeavors do all the time, doesn’t mean all that effort was wasted. You have something to show for it — there are things you now know and can do that you couldn’t before, things you sure wouldn’t have learned through the same old inaction. It’s not sugar-coating to call this failure a “partial success”; it’s the truth.

That reflects much more on your capacity to succeed than saying that your “biggest failure” was when you tried to get an A in chemistry class but you got a B.

Twitter: @visualizevalue.

“I used to resent obstacles along the path, thinking, ‘If only that hadn’t happened, life would be so good.’ Then I suddenly realized, life is the obstacles. There is no underlying path.”

— Janna Levin, theoretical cosmologist, as quoted in Tribe of Mentors

If you beat yourself up for not succeeding, you’re beating yourself up for being human. Nobody is guaranteed anything.

Just think of all the people who had to cancel long-planned events, or lose a chunk of their income, or miss out on expected opportunities, all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They did nothing to deserve that! But who promised we’d have a year without a crisis? Humanity has lived through many before, and not even the wisest were immune — but the wise were able to adapt. So the pandemic didn’t cancel 2020. It simply is 2020. This is a very different year from the other years, and we’re living accordingly.

No matter how brilliant your plan is, it can still fail; no amount of optimism can prevent that. No matter how resilient you strive to be, you can still feel disappointed; no amount of sugarcoating can prevent that. Life has low points. With the right perspective, you can embrace them and keep going.

Carnegie Mellon class of 2022.

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