Why Failing Is Good: How Successful People Use It to Their Benefit

What do Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, J.K. Rowling, Sidney Poitier, and Albert Einstein have in common? Each of these individuals experienced at least one colossal failure during their lives. Several even experienced multiple failures before finally achieving success.

Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win a Best Actor Academy Award, was once told by a casting director to “stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something.” Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he had helped to create. J.K Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before finding a home for the first of her now-beloved Harry Potter novels. Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player who ever lived, was cut from his high school basketball squad.

10,000 Ways That Won’t Work

Thomas Edison Quote

In other words, successful people do not view failure as final. Failure is perceived as a lesson learned, perhaps providing a clue toward a different direction. Instead of taking failure as personal or internalizing it as a character flaw, successful people recognize that everyone fails. The key is to rebound and continue to move forward.

An entrepreneur with a strong independent streak may learn that while self-reliance is truly an asset, no one individual possesses expertise in every aspect of a business venture. Going it totally alone may not be the right approach.

Other successful people use failure to guide their career paths while continuing to trust their instincts. Oprah Winfrey, who became the undisputed queen of talk, was fired from her first job as a newscaster because – wait for it – she became too emotionally involved in the stories she reported. She altered her course from straight news to become a talk show host and the rest, as the cliché says, is history.

These Guys Should Thank Their Wives

Sometimes failure appears to be a stopping point, but is instead merely a detour. Stephen King, after receiving 30 rejections for his now-iconic horror novel Carrie, actually threw the manuscript into the trash. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged King to resubmit it.

A tragic case that illustrates the folly of giving up too soon is the story of The Third Policeman, written by Irish author Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the pen name Flann O’Brien. When a London publisher rejected the manuscript in 1940, O’Brien told everyone that the manuscript had blown out of the trunk of his car. Instead, the manuscript sat in his home, untouched, until after his death in 1966. His wife discovered the “lost” manuscript and submitted it again, this time to positive reviews.

Steven Spielberg was rejected not once or twice, but three times from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television. He eventually attended another university but dropped out to trade academia for real-world experience. He went on to earn international acclaim for movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

Need inspiration? 50 Famously Successful People Who Failed At First

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Stronger Quote

Friedrich Nietzsche is credited with the quote “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Although failure feels terrible, experiencing and recovering from failure can indeed make you more capable.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, conducted research that tracked brain waves with two groups of young subjects. One group with what she labeled “fixed” mind sets, the second with what she labeled “growth” mind sets. When confronted with failure, the subjects with “growth” mindsets became more focused, learned from their mistakes and were more likely to succeed in subsequent attempts at the same task. By contrast, subjects with “fixed” mindsets did not display the same sort of focus and showed almost no improvement in other attempts at the same task.

This research pinpoints exactly why we’re afraid of failure, as highlighted in her testing of the effect of praise on children:

…Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow… that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow… that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment–they wanted an easy one instead–far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability… In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly. – The Secret To Raising Smart Kids

Failure can seem detrimental to your progress, and if your focus is on the result and not the work, you’ll be let down time and time again. Not only that, you won’t learn from your mistakes.

Learning From Failure Helps the Brain

Physiological evidence supports the assertion that the learning process actually enhances the brain. Photos taken of brain activity during the learning process illustrate neurons firing and creating new connections. Dweck’s research revealed that a similar process occurred during her failure experiments in the brain activity of the subjects with “growth” mindsets, but was notably lacking in the brain activity of subjects with “fixed” mindsets.

Research conducted by Antoine Bechara, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California has isolated two areas of the prefrontal cortex that may correspond with the “growth” and “fixed” mindsets described by Dweck’s research. According to Bechara, one of these two prefrontal cortex areas controls what he calls the “lure of success,” the other triggers the “fear of failure.” Bechara argues that the struggle between risk and reward occurs between these two areas of the brain. According to Bechara, failure provides an opportunity for the brain to enhance its learning capacity. Failure is good.

Too Much Praise Can Be Bad For You

People who exhibit talent or intellectual ability often fail to capitalize on their gifts as they mature. This is especially true if others around them shower praise on them for their “natural” or “God-given” gifts. If you don’t know about the dangers of praise, read up on it along with Dweck’s research. Those who are constantly praised for their achievements (read: praise junkie) get stuck in a cycle of trying to get more praise. Such people often believe that their abilities are fixed. When they encounter challenges, instead of striving to overcome them, they conclude that their abilities are inadequate. What do they do then? They give up.

Those who don’t have “natural talents” often achieve success in athletics and entertainment. Why? They accept the fact that they must work hard and meet challenges and with determination rather than discouragement.

Learn to Fail Like a Professional

Learn to Fail

So, you gave it your best effort, but you came up short. Yes, you feel disappointed, and you are entitled to take some time to lick your wounds. But except for the very deepest of letdowns, this period of self-pity shouldn’t last too long. Instead, use the time to conduct self-reflection on alternate strategies for future attempts. Do you need to shore up your contacts? Perhaps the manuscript could do with a good editor. Find out exactly where you could use help or enhancement.

Give Yourself Credit Where Credit’s Due

Give yourself credit for what you did well. Where’s the silver lining? If, in the midst of an mistake, you still managed to excel in other areas acknowledge those as a win. We highlight the importance of writing down your accomplishments in our article about how writing boosts our brain. Recognizing your achievements is more important than dwelling on your faults.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up About It

Resist the urge to turn the failure inwards. Even if you are certain that you really messed things up, so what? That means you’re human. Self-flagellation does nothing to change the present circumstances, and could cause you to shy away from taking risks in the future. We’ve learned that this is almost a certain recipe for sustained failure.

Instead, people who “fail well” recognize what they could have done differently while acknowledge that sometimes failure results from circumstances that were beyond their control. Most importantly, they get back in the game as soon as possible.

When was the last time you got reamed out by your boss about something you actually didn’t do wrong? When was the last time something like this happened and you internalized it, blaming yourself? It’s easy convince yourself that things are your fault and talk yourself around maybe’s and if only’s. But if you want to fail well, even if it’s because of something you did do wrong, take it in stride and keep going.

Allow your failures to provide teachable lessons, so that the next time, or the time after that, you will know better.

Liked this article? We’ve got 10 Surprising Things Financially Successful People Regret with more mistakes to learn from.


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