10 Ways to Succeed at Failure

“You may be disappointed if you fail,

but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

Beverly Sills

Failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

  1. Grieve. That may sound strange, but some failures are a type of death – the death of a dream, the death of a relationship, the death of a business venture. Sure, these are nothing compared to the death of a friend or family member, but if we feel the loss deeply, there’s no shame in admitting it. I can say from experience that when a writer puts time and energy and creativity and emotion and hope into a manuscript, it hurts to have it rejected by agents or publishers. It feels like a major failure. We writers often have to give ourselves time to lick our wounds and grieve.


2. Forgive yourself. This is related to grieving and, in fact, may be part of the process. Author Ann Patchett wrote, “I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.” (I would add: or achieving any other heartfelt goal.) “Forgiveness, therefore, is key,” she says. “Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

So the next time failure hits hard, try a writerly response. Give yourself a period of time to feel and process the rejection (aka the failure). A morning in mourning. A night out. A day of self-care. Forgive yourself if you need to. And when that self-imposed period of time is over, try to set aside the weight of failure and get back to work. Or as my Texas forebears might counsel, “Get back in the saddle.”


  1. Avoid using someone else’s life as the measuring stick for your success. Comparing our failure to someone else’s success can easily lead to one of two unhealthy extremes. At one extreme, we who fall short disparage those who succeed. This is so common it has a name: “tall poppy syndrome.” Anyone who rises above the crowd gets cut down. At the other extreme, we who don’t “make it” idolize those who do. They become almost mythical to us. Both extremes rely on the assumption that the successful people are somehow different from us. Creative consultant Dan Blank points out what’s under the surface: “What you don’t see is the thousands of decisions . . . made over the years. The thousands of negotiations. The thousands of little failures. You don’t see the late-night worries. You don’t see how they had to stick to their guns with some difficult decisions and compromise on others.”

Poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, “Losing is no shame, nor does it make you less than others. It’s being less than yourself that mars you.” I’ve heard similar advice given to young athletes: Compete with yourself and simply try to better your own personal record.

  1. Honor your failures. Remind yourself that at least you had the courage to try. A lot of people never even get that far. The irony is that while failure often feels like a step backward, it’s actually a step forward, maybe in an unexpected direction, but forward just the same. As a popular saying goes, “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”


  1. Recast the purpose of your initial efforts. I recently emailed my older son, who lives in Japan, to give him the latest family news: My younger son passed the bar, which means he may now practice law. I remarked that it’s strange that we refer to the business of lawyers and doctors as practice. My older son responded, “[I]n Japan it takes 10 years to become respectably proficient at anything. It’s part of the code of honor. If you’ve been working your job for less, you would refer to yourself as in training. And once you achieve the ten-year mark, you pursue improvement. The code applies to everyone from ramen chefs to doctors.”

We tend to look at success as an endpoint, a terminus. But what if we recast our efforts, redefining them as part of a process? In a blog on writing, author John Vorhaus posted, “When you’re trying a hard thing, you’re not doing it to succeed. You’re doing it to improve.”


  1. Lower your expectations. Okay, I can hear the gasps. You don’t tell people to lower their expectations, right? We’re supposed encourage each other to dream big, shoot for the moon, hitch our wagon to a star. And there’s nothing wrong with having a grand goal – unless we stake our personal value and happiness on achieving that goal. In that case, failure can feel like a personal disaster. So lowering expectations could make sense. Is there a smaller goal to achieve first? Something more within reach? Is there some lower hanging fruit that we can pick on the way to the bounty at the top of the tree?

We tend to see success as the big stuff and overlook small successes along the way. But in reality, most goals are reached in increments, two steps forward, one step back (or maybe ten back). Seth Godin once said in an interview that the goal is simply to do well enough today to be able to do it one more day.

  1. View failure as the valuable flip side of the success coin. I’ve heard that the process of building muscle by weight lifting actually involves tearing down muscle in order to rebuild it stronger. I know that getting a car out of a rut often entails going backward before you can move forward. You get it. To succeed, you have to fail first.

“Seeming failure is often necessary to push our work into unexpected terrain,” said writer and teacher Louise DeSalvo. Notice her subtle nudge: seeming failure. What seems like failure may be exactly what’s needed to position us for success. Author/illustrator Gregoire Solotareff said, “I find that failure is more useful than success. [I]t makes you question yourself. When you are successful the first time around you tend to repeat yourself.”


  1. Interpret failure as not yet. In an interview, Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and author of Mindset, tells about a Chicago school where teachers choose to give a grade of ‘not yet’ instead of the dreaded ‘F’ when students didn’t pass a subject. “And I thought that was fantastic,” she says, “because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘not yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” ‘Not yet’ is often an accurate way to look at failure, because ‘failure’ is usually a temporary setback. Sarah Lewis, author of Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, put it this way: “We know that something that looks as if it’s final, winter’s deep freeze, will eventually result in spring. Life is the same way. Failure for me is an equivalent to that winter period.”


  1. Be tenacious. “[K]nowledge combined with experience and tenacity is the key to success,” says painter Zoltan Szabo. Failure may simply be what happens when we give up too soon. But how do we know when to keep trying and when to stop? It’s a judgment call. Which is why the next point is . . .


  1. Quit. Oops. Did I say that? Yep, I did. And that’s where I’ll start in next week’s post.

Until then, try-try-try again or, you know, . . . give it a week.

If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm. http://carrythecalm.com


Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.