Failure is only bad when you fail to learn

Written by Rachel Chan Published on     5 mins read

The way we choose to view failure determines what we get out of the experience.

I’ve never seen failure as a bad thing. 

I’ve never “felt like a failure” in the sense that I let unsuccessful situations affect my personal identity. So when something doesn’t go well, I don’t immediately think that there’s something wrong with me. I just analyse the situation objectively, figure out what could have been done better and take note of it for next time. 

I don’t see these situations in a negative light. There’s a saying that failures are stepping stones to success, and I truly believe that. Each time something doesn’t go well, I can learn from the experience. 

That’s not the case for my friend. 

A few weeks into their new job, they beat themselves up for not getting results. They felt that they were “just not good at this” and wondered whether they had made the wrong career decision. They tied their results to their personal identity, resulting in them “feeling like a failure.” 

Failure can negatively impact your personal identity. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash.

It was a sales role, so I understood that results were important. But I gently pointed out that they’d literally just started and were still learning the ropes. 

In fact, I was also just a few months into my new sales role, and I hadn’t performed that well either. But I felt that it was to be expected. Whenever you’re learning something new, there’s going to be a period of sucking at it until you get better with practice. 

They acknowledged that and realised that their expectations may have been a little unrealistic. However, they still “felt the pressure.” So I asked, “pressure from where?” It turned out that it was pressure from themselves. That’s right. Not their boss, not their parents, but themselves! 

Having high expectations can set you up for failure

Since their father had gone from nothing to something, they felt the pressure to live up to that standard of success. It wasn’t even the case that their father had set those expectations for them. It was self-imposed high expectations that led them to “feel like a failure” and question whether they had the ability to succeed.

To me, it came as a shock, because I’d never experienced something like that before. But I have a feeling that many people struggle with a similar issue. 

For those coming from an Asian background, it’s likely that there are people in their life criticising them for not performing to their expectations, e.g. parents’ expectations for their child. I’m fortunate that my family has never imposed any high expectations on me. 

Are you constantly trying to prove yourself to others? Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash.

On top of the external pressures, I’m sure that there are also people like my friend who impose tough expectations on themselves and beat themselves up internally when things don’t go as planned. 

These expectations make them see every failure as a negative situation, like deducting points off a scoreboard. Didn’t do this well, minus one point! Didn’t do that well, minus another point! 

Over time, this process drains and demotivates them and ruins their self-confidence, leading to an ongoing negative cycle. It’s a game that they can never win.  

It also means that they can miss the learning opportunity in every failure. They’re too focused on beating themselves up for not being good enough that they don’t see the things that they did well and look to learn how they can get better. 

Once this goes on for long enough, it can completely ruin their self-image and hold them back from performing well in the future since they see themselves as someone who cannot be successful

If this is something you’ve experienced, here are some tips for dealing with it. 

How to bounce back after failure 

I believe that the key to dealing with failure in an effective way is to choose what we make it mean.

The next time you encounter failure, don’t make it mean anything about you. Failing to run fast enough doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re too fat, you’re just unfit or you’re just not athletic enough. Perhaps, you’re just missing the right technique. 

Failing to close a deal doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad salesperson, you don’t know how to talk to people, or you don’t know your product well enough. It’s likely that there are multiple factors at play, and it could even be the case that the customer likes your product but isn’t ready to buy right now.  

Change the way you look at failure. Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash.

When you’re not focusing on internalising your failures and building up your self-identity as someone who just isn’t good enough, you can step back, look at the entire situation and determine the various factors that could have contributed to things not going well. The key is to look at and criticise the process, not yourself. 

“I failed to adequately prepare for my pitch. I should give myself more time to practice next time.” vs. “I just suck at pitching.”

This means that you can approach every future situation with tweaks and improvements, instead of getting caught up in how badly the last time went. 

It’s also important to recognise the things that you did well, because it’s easy to overlook them when you’re focused on what you could have done better. 

“Sure, I didn’t manage to close the deal with him, but we had a great conversation about his interest in startups and he invited me to an event next week…”

Managing expectations 

Apart from choosing your perspective on failure, you should also examine the expectations that you’ve set for yourself. 

I think that having high expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it can motivate you to perform. If you don’t push yourself a little, you won’t grow. 

The only danger lies in having expectations without knowing why they’re important to you. Have a target number of reps at the gym? Okay, that’s important because you want to get toned up so that you can feel better about your body. 

Want to get a coveted job at a brand-name firm? Why is that important? Oh, because everyone else is going for it and it’s a mark of success and prestige? Will it truly make you happy, or are you just chasing it for the sake of looking good in front of others? 

We place so many expectations on ourselves on a regular basis, and sometimes others place their expectations on us too. But do we ever stop to question whether we actually want those things? 

Learn to question your expectations. Photo by 胡 卓亨 on Unsplash.

I came across a great exercise to help with this. It’s very simple. Just keep asking yourself “why” you want something until you can’t answer the question anymore. Usually, the final answer will be something along the lines of “so that I can be happy.” That’s a good thing. 

If the final answer is something like “so I can make my parents happy” or “so I can seem like a successful person in society” or some other external reason, you might want to re-examine whether you really want it. 

This will help you determine whether failing to get something is really that important to you after all. 

Rachel Chan writes about mindset and personal development on her blog. She’s on a mission to empower millions of people around the world to live their best lives through education on mindset and growth.

Disclaimer: This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the interviewee herself. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here


Rachel Chan


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