It’s easy, when observing other people’s successes, to think that it came easily, or that you’re the unlucky one missing out. But rooted at the heart of almost every successful endeavour - whether it’s a project, work or a relationship - is some form of failure.
The catch-22 of course, is that no one willingly wants to fail, and the prospect of it can be incredibly stressful. In fact, for a lot of us, we lose a sense of perspective and believe it to be the worst thing that could happen, when in actual fact, it’s a critical part of our development.
In fact, a lot of famous people attribute their later, stratospheric success to earlier failures. Oprah was fired from her first TV anchor job, Sir James Dyson failed thousands of times before making his world famous vacuum cleaner, and Jay Z couldn’t get a record label to sign him, and had to sell his CDs out of the back of a car boot.
In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, author J.K. Rowling said: “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I suspected.”
Failure - contrary to it feels - isn’t the end of the world. In fact, here are 11 reasons why it’s essential.
1. It prompts you to re-evaluate what’s actually important to you.
One of the biggest fears around failing tends to be around work. Am I doing well? Will I get that promotion? Sometimes, it can feel like your world will end if it doesn’t happen for you but it may not actually be the thing you want. Neel Burton, who wrote The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, says that it can actually be quite freeing.
“Society’s idea of success and happiness is a trap,” he says. “It is not just that the bar is set too high, but also that it is set in the wrong place, and that it is, in fact, the wrong bar. Jump and you’ll only break your back. ‘Failure’ on the other hand can free us from that rat race.”
2. It makes you unafraid to try
One of the worst aspects of failure is that the fear around it is so great, you’d rather not attempt anything in case it doesn’t work out. Siobhan Curham, author and motivational speaker says: “I spent most of my younger life terrified of failure. Fear of failure played a big part in me dropping out of uni two years into my English degree. I was so scared that I didn’t have what it took to become a writer (due to my working class background) and that I would fail, I gave up even trying. Thankfully, I managed to overcome this fear but it took several years working in soul destroying jobs to do so.”
3) It helps you let go of the past
Talking about getting over a failed relationship, Megan McArdle who wrote The Up Side Of Down: Bouncing Back In Business And Life said in a piece she wrote for Stylist: “Failure forces us to acknowledge the truth, to let go of the lacklustre past. And once we’ve done so – once we no longer have something, no matter how inadequate, to lose – we’re free to take a flyer on something great.”
4) It makes you realise everything is temporary
Although it feels destabilising at the time, failure jolts you out of your routine and makes you think more immediately. Neel says: “Instead of living for the future, we begin to live for the present.” You may feel terrible while it’s going on, but eventually when you come out of it, it ends up being an incredible learning curve that nothing lasts - not even feeling bad about failing.
5) You become more resilient
People who experience failure and then overcome it, end up far more resilient and better equipped at dealing with future situations. Siobhan says: “Failure can be a blessing if you’re willing to seek the wisdom in the setback. You can choose to let setbacks defeat and define you or you can choose to learn the lessons and carry on stronger and wiser than before. I try and see so-called failures as valuable steps on the way to success.”
6) It keeps your ego in check
We’ve all had a moment when we misjudge our value or abilities, and sometimes, it can royally backfire. But if you find yourself being dumped, take heart in what Neel calls ‘dissolution of the ego’. Failure is a great teacher in learning your own personal limitations, and figuring out how to do better next time.
7) It teaches you that the path to success isn’t straight...and that’s a good thing
School teaches you a very linear path to success. Pass this test and you’ll be rewarded with good grades; that then leads to higher education, and so on. But in the real world, success is not always so predictable or straightforward.
Siobhan says: “I’ve learned that the world doesn’t end and actually, failure can often lead to far greater things,” she says. “A great example of this is when I was dropped by my first publisher due to poor sales of my fourth book. It felt like the end of the world. But this ‘failure’ led to a massive breakthrough for me. I wrote and self-published my first young adult novel Dear Dylan - giving away the e-book for free.
“It was liberating writing purely to try and help young people and no longer having to fear failing in a publisher’s eyes. Dear Dylan went on to win a national book award and then went to auction, with eight publishers bidding for it. I’ve since had seven YA books traditionally published and achieved success beyond my wildest dreams.”
8) You become better at taking risks
Not all risks are sensible, admittedly, but the one thing that unifies super successful people is the ability to take a risk. When talking to Forbes, executive coach Dr Sam Collins said: “We must take a leap, take calculated risks, and be patient for the results. We don’t need to have everything worked out beforehand. I never wrote a business plan, but in order to reach the next level in life, business, and my own personal growth, I had to take some risks. It gets you out of your head and into your gut instinct pretty quickly and successfully.”
9) Failing is actually a skill (no, really)
Learning how to recover from failure is a skill. Life coach Pam Bauer says: “If you’re good at falling down and getting back up, you’ll be confident going into new situations because you know you’ll be OK no matter what happens.”
10) It prevents you from ruminating over things in the future
Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology published a paper called ‘Perfectionism and coping with daily failures’ and found that staying positive through failure helped significantly in terms of inner resilience. Keeping your sense of humour may seem challenging when things are terrible, but if you can master this, Dr Stoeber says it helps enormously in the future, in terms of not obsessing about things.
11) You actually learn more from it
You can learn from success, and you can learn from failure - but the latter will teach you far more, and is therefore more valuable. Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School ran a study looking at which was more helpful. He says: ““We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years.”