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6 ways to learn from failure

By Michael Crump | 11 October 2017

It may sound obvious, but you can learn from failure. We’ve all been there. You poured your heart and soul into it. Your blood, sweat and tears. You gave as much as you could possibly give and did your best. Yet, you still failed. You might have read How to Fail Like A Champ in 3 Steps.

When failure is imminent, it's only natural that you responded by feeling down about yourself and your projects... right? As an adult, you might handle failure much better than you did as a teen or a child. But do you actually gain anything from failure? Nobody has ever achieved great success in this world without learning how to respond to failure the right way. Want to know how? Of course you do!

business man stressed out looking at work

#1: Check your fear of failure

Nobody wants to fail, obviously. If it were up to us, our lives would be like Brazil at the 1970 FIFA World Cup or Angelina Jolie’s face (which is to say, perfect). But life’s not like that and we can’t succeed at everything. The key is not to be discouraged by failure, nor to fear it – a notion that appears to be gaining popularity in the business world, the world of education and society at large.

However, what we sometimes fail to emphasise is that it’s not that being ok with failing is a good thing; it’s just learning to accept defeat and moving on. If a failure hasn’t crushed your self-confidence, great but if you haven’t learnt anything from it then you probably aren’t looking at it right.

hand up by a person drowning into sea

#2: What is your “unexamined life”?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” This quote, attributed to Socrates, is as relevant today as it was in Ancient Greece. The first step to recovering – and benefiting — from failure is to examine it and discover the cause, or causes. Many of us don’t want to analyse our failures because thinking about them makes us feel bad. But if we don’t dwell on our failures, we can’t learn from them.

This doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity, this means looking at ourselves, our actions and our results coldly and dispassionately, as if we were examining the behaviour of a total stranger. The capability to step outside the situation is a great tool, but you can’t always disassociate yourself from an issue, in which case it would be beneficial to find an actual third party to examine the case with you.

A colleague or friend might be able to provide some insight on an issue that you overlooked. This may not always be possible though, if you’re having problems with colleagues then there are ways to learn how to deal with that.

#3: Determine the cause

The best way to really learn from failure is to identify exactly what went wrong. Sometimes this is fairly easy (your date failed because you kept picking your nose; don’t do that). Unfortunately, life is often more complex than that. Let’s say you’re a salesperson and your recent pitch to a potential client was unsuccessful.

There are many possible reasons for this. To discover the problem, you ought to try to be scientific about this and isolate the variables. Perhaps you’re worried that you may have been too aggressive with your pitch. In that case, the next time you have two similar potential customers lined up for meetings, try to do everything the same: wear the same clothes, give the same greeting, even walk the same way.

But with one, try the hard-sell, and with the other, a soft-sell. If one customer agrees to buy and the other doesn’t, then you have an important piece of data. This is called a split test; it’s where you present two proposals or tests identically, save for one variable. If you get different results, then you’ve isolated the cause.

Of course, a sales pitch is not a scientific study; you can’t control all the variables. But control all the ones you can and you’ll be much closer to finding the culprit of your previous failures.

#4: Look at the scientific methodology

As you can see,  approaching failure as if a scientist is a great technique. For the average person, failing a test at school, failing to close a business deal, or a failed romantic relationship are demonstrations of your lack of skill or worth. But if we look at it scientifically, we just disproved a hypothesis, which is valuable data.

Your hypothesis was that the aggressive hard sell is the best approach and you successfully disproved that hypothesis; now you know better! You’ve also disproved the hypotheses that not studying for your exam and blurting out, “I love you” on a second date could lead to success in academia and romance, respectively. Hooray!

#5: Focus on bouncing back

If you think critically about your failures and identify their causes, you will begin to find success. You will discover why successful people the world over, including Richard Branson,  have identified failure as a key to success. Let’s say you’re an entrepreneur and you’re trying to entice investors to get behind your new venture.

They will look at your past failures, but that’s ok! They’re not trying to find out if you’ve failed in the past (they know you have), they want to know how you’ve learned and bounced back from those failures. “Bouncebackabillity”, as so many awful sportscasters would say, is a key quality to possess if you’re going achieve success.

determined young woman boxing

#6: Move on and keep learning

However, you find the reasons for your failures, remember the ultimate goal is to never make the same error twice. We all make mistakes, we’re only human. But as long as we learn from them then we can go on and find great success that will allow us to make brand new mistakes. That’s how to be successful and happy.

Don't be afraid of failure!

How have you responded to some of the failures in your life? Let us know, and keep on learning! And if you want to learn more about how to stay happy at work, check this post out. Studying online is a great way to tackle your fear of failure.

Because your learning is self-paced, many people find that the pressure disappears and they can concentrate on their study goals in their own time. Upskilled offers around 100 online courses in everything from information technology to community services. Check out the range of courses available online 

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