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Dealing With Failure

The expert is an expert because she has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

Have you ever seen a video of AI learning to walk? It’s comical at first. The poor thing does some weird flopping around and really doesn’t go anywhere. By the end, there may be some extra arm flailing, but it’s moving! Turns out, some AIs learn the same way we do: through failure.

Some of the biggest successes in my life have come from my biggest failures. This journey of self-improvement began after a tumultuous relationship blew up spectacularly. I was at one of the lowest points in my life when I decided to turn it all around. Similarly, I created Grit after having an absolutely horrid experience at my first “real adult job” and, while it’s too early to say anything for sure, things seem to be going well.

The key to dealing with failure, and losing your fear of failure, is seeing those failures as a positive learning experience. This mindset shift can take some time, but it’s so worth it because it makes it easier to go after your goals.

I was raised to avoid failure at all costs. I recently picked up Fight, Grind, Repeat: Fail Until You Don’t by Bobby Bones on a trip to the library with my dad. Seeing the skepticism on his face, I offered, “I love failure! It’s the fastest way to learn,” and my sixty-two-year-old dad responded, “I hate failure.”

It isn’t easy to learn to see something we’ve been taught to fear as a positive experience. Failure can be difficult. It can be painful. It isn’t easy. But failure is necessary and useful. You cannot escape it, and it really is one of the fastest ways to learn.

Fearing failure will keep you deep inside of your comfort zone for your entire life. If that’s what you want, fine. But here at Grit, we don’t live inside our comfort zones. Life inside your comfort zone is small. It’s unambitious. It’s unrewarding, unfulfilling, and probably won’t make you very happy. Few things will benefit you more than getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

In order to be good at something, you need to be bad at it first. The best of the best in any area of life didn’t start out with the skills they have now. They tried, and tried, and tried, and failed, and failed, and failed before finally succeeding.

You’re going to fail sometimes. It’s inevitable. Especially if you want to be good at something, you’re going to fail before you get there.

The thing is, we learn more from our failures than our successes. Failures are full of learning opportunities. Figuring out why something didn’t work and using that information to make better decisions next time is one of the fastest ways to get better at something. Not only is failure sometimes inevitable, but it’s a good thing!

I was asked recently how I know I’m doing what’s best for me. How do I know that the actions I’m taking are the perfect things for me right now? The answer to that is that I don’t. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving a F*ck, summed it up well with this tweet:

(Disclaimer: I may receive a small commission from purchases made using my links, but tons of stuff on this blog is inspired by that book so if you like me, you'll probably like Mark. If you can, support your local library.)

The man tells it like it is.

He’s right. There’s no way of knowing what’s best for you. All we can do is take a stab at our current best guess, and if that doesn’t work out, then we learn from it. This is exactly what happened when I joined and subsequently left my first 9-5.

Try things. Sometimes you’ll get it right. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but this only makes you more likely to get it right next time.

Okay, But How Do I Deal With Failure?

Give yourself some time. The sting of failure is always going to hurt a bit. Give it a couple of minutes, or a couple of days, or a couple of months, depending on what exactly happened. I’m not going to pretend failure is easy. Putting your all into everything and being rejected does hurt. The good news is that the more often you fail, the less it hurts.

I went through a really awful break up a few years ago, and it took me quite a while afterward to figure out that I benefited from that relationship. If you had asked me a month after we broke up if failing in that relationship was a positive thing, I would have said no, and that I still thought I wanted to marry that man.

Turns out, that relationship ended up teaching me how to be in a good relationship by showing me how not to be in a relationship. I would not be in my current happy and successful relationship if I hadn’t learned what I did from completely ruining the previous one. (Not that it was entirely my fault. We were both awful.)

As I’ve said before, that terrible relationship also sparked my journey of self-improvement. I wouldn’t have gotten a 4.0, or started getting up early, meditating, or working out if it hadn’t been for that failure. If I hadn’t failed spectacularly, I never would’ve started down the path that eventually led me here to help so many other people.

I’ve recently gotten back in touch with my ex, and it turns out that break up also ended up being a great thing for him as well. Because of our relationship—and some other circumstances that changed around the time it ended—he’s a much more open-minded and relaxed person. He accepts that others may not think the way he does, and that’s okay. I helped to break him out of his little bubble.

After you’ve given yourself a moment to process it, it’s time to turn this failure into a positive thing by figuring out what lesson it's trying to teach you. Seeing every failure as a learning experience is a mindset shift. It will take some practice, but it’ll make you much more ambitious, less afraid to go after the things you want, and ultimately, put you in a better place in life. Knowing that one day you’ll look back and be grateful for your failures makes them much easier to deal with.

When you fail, take some time afterward to reflect back on what went wrong. Don’t dwell on it, but figure out what happened, why those things went wrong, and what would need to be changed in order to do a better job next time. Pretend you’re an AI: “That didn’t work, so now I need to try something different.”

For instance, I realized pretty early into my 9-5 that it wasn’t the right place for me, but it took me some time to figure out why. After paying more attention and giving it some thought for a few months, I realized it wasn’t working for quite a few reasons. Some of the primary ones were that the environment in that office was nothing short of absolute chaos, whereas I know I thrive when things are organized, and that I was either given way too much freedom and no direction, or no freedom at all, when I need a moderate to high amount of freedom, along with a clear idea of what direction I’m supposed to head in order to do well at my job.

Because I spent time reflecting on why that 9-5 didn't work for me, I was able to find a better path forward that may be less stable, but ultimately will make me much happier and allow me to lead a life that I find fulfilling.

Failing a test teaches you something. Failing a relationship teaches you something. If the first step of a project doesn’t go well, that teaches you something. I have yet to come across any failures that aren’t also a valuable learning opportunity. In fact, it’s often necessary to fail in order to start moving in the right direction.

Sometimes, your failures are going to be pretty big, but in my experience, the bigger the failure, the more positive change comes from it. It may take some time to see it, but failure often hands you the best opportunities. All that you have to do to take advantage of the newly opened door is to learn from your experience, instead of dwelling on it.

Though larger failures often bring about the greatest changes, small failures have their uses as well. When I start something new, I often make it my goal to try out a handful of new things as quickly as possible knowing that several of them will fail. By figuring out early what doesn’t work, I have a better idea of how far I can push things and still be successful.

A pretty literal example of this was when I set out to make 1000 pots. At the time, I was fairly new to ceramics. I didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t. I was still learning the limits of the clay. So I pushed myself. I pushed my forms. I tried to work with larger amounts of clay. I tried to make the walls thinner. I experimented in every way I could think of to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. That gave me a better idea of what direction to move in as I proceeded.

Fail fast, and fail often. There’s no need to fail spectacularly, but when you first start something, push the limits a little. Find out what doesn’t work. Along the way, you’ll also figure out what works.

These small, early failures will also help you to become comfortable with the idea of failing. Sometimes things don’t work out, but nothing bad is going to come from it. As you become okay with these small failures, you’ll realize that failure is okay, failure is necessary, and failure will not hurt you.

It also helps to realize that your first few tries at something won’t be great, but in order to do something fifty times, you have to first do it once. Get it over with. So what if you fail? So what if you fail the first twenty times? That’s twenty lessons that you just learned quickly and pretty much painlessly so that maybe your twenty-first attempt can be something great.

Don’t fear failure. Just get started. In order to be good at something, you’ve got to be bad at it first. I look back at my old blog posts now and wonder how I thought those were decent posts, but I know that in order to get to where I am now, I had to start somewhere. I’ll probably look back at these posts in a few months and wonder how I thought they were good, but that’s okay because I can’t move forward unless I’m consistently trying to get better.

The best path forward consists of trying something, deciding what didn’t work, changing that, and trying again. Funnily enough, that’s exactly how that AI at the beginning works as well.

Failure is not a big deal. Failure is necessary. If you want to get better at anything, including life, one of the most valuable things you can do is experience failure. It’s much rarer than you think that failure truly ruins lives. Most of the time, no one will even remember it tomorrow. And honestly, chances are you’re much less likely to fail than you think you are. Push yourself; it’ll be okay.

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