Failing Doesn’t Make You A Failure. It Makes You Human
How to push forward when you feel defeated
Failure seems to strengthen the resolve of champions; they see it as a detour along the way to success, rather than a roadblock. We admire folks who overcome failure to reach success. They inspire us. We tell their stories over and over.
Even the cliff notes version of their stories serve as inspiration:
- Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman admitted to an American medical school; she failed in her 29 previous attempts to gain admission.
- Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985. He returned 11 years later and transformed it into one of the most successful companies in history.
- Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and went on to become the best player ever.
I like to think of myself as one of those heroes who thrive in the face of failure. But that would be a lie. For most of my life, I did the opposite when confronted with failure.
- I refused to persevere.
- I blamed failure on outside forces or other people.
- I concocted reasonable excuses to quit.
Until my early forties, I quit every venture at the first setback. No matter how hard I reasoned with myself, I could not will myself to press forward. I always opted for the path of least resistance.
You can persevere through failure
Fast forward to today. I write every day, even after a multitude of flops. I’m persevering through a novel after rejections and multiple rewrites. I will never quit. I could not have made that proclamation ten years ago, not even five years ago. I no longer succumb to failure.
The CRAWL method — exploit failure as a tool for success
I spent decades scouring every motivational story and speech I could find only to conclude it was a waste of time.
Motivational stories and speeches inspire you, but they rarely lead to sustained action. You need something more than rah-rah speeches. You need a system that enables you to accept your failure, make sense of it, and move forward — the CRAWL method.
I cobbled together this system after years of trial and error. Except for step 2, most of it is common sense self-help with uncommon tweaks.
Step 1 — Cool off
My first sales mentor once told me, “Never make a major decision after a failure. You can’t reason with agitated emotions.” Allow yourself some cooling off time before you make a significant decision.
Don’t vent to another human being. Don’t commiserate with others amid failure. They’ll facilitate the blame-shifting strategy. Some might silently cheer at your fall from grace. They’ll act like your best friend, and tell you it’s okay. Those soothing words will sap your will and stifle your progress.
Embrace a period of solitude.
There’s plenty you can do on your own to work through the emotion. Write in your journal. Hit the gym. Blog under a pseudonym. Do yoga. Anything that helps you dissipate the negative feelings serves this purpose.
Step 2 — Reflect (the 25-year lens)
Humans possess the evolutionary advantage of projecting our future selves and looking back on current events as though they were distant memories. This exercise, called the 25-year lens, does more to stabilize the emotional blow of failure than any drug, exercise, or therapeutic aid.
Here’s how it works.
- Close your eyes and imagine yourself 25 years into the future.
- Look back on today’s failure from the perspective of your future self. Recall it as a distant memory that happened 25 years ago.
- From the perspective of your future self, do you even remember today’s failure? Is it so significant that it will have stuck with you all these years? Think about all the highs and lows that will have happened. Think about the arc of your life. How likely is it that you’ll remember this day?
- If you do remember it, how do you evaluate it with the benefit of 25 years distance? How significant was it in the course of your life? How does it compare with the other milestones in your life?
- Picture yourself thinking about this failure with the passage of 25 years. Does it bother you that you got all worked up over it? Are you laughing about it now?
In twenty-five years, you likely won’t remember the failure that ruined your day. If you do, it won’t seem like a big deal. By then, you will have evaluated it within the context of a lifespan. It will seem insignificant in the grandiose scheme of things.
The emotional pain will have dissipated. You’ll wonder why you had gotten so worked up over it in the first place. You might even regret your overreaction to the minor setback more than the misfortune itself.
Given this new perspective, how do you choose to push forward?
Step 3 — Assess
You should now have that negative emotion under control. Continue with your future-self perspective, and learn from your disappointing outcome. No matter what your result, you can take comfort in your accomplishment.
You tried. You risked. You took a chance.
It takes guts to put yourself out there and risk failure or rejection. Every time you take that risk, you win a personal victory. Now it’s time to take an honest look at what led to your failure.
- What were the top three causes behind your disappointing outcome?
- Was it outside your control, or could you have done something more?
- If you could have done one thing differently, what would it have been?
- Did this failure reveal any deficiencies in your skillset? If so, which skills do you need to improve?
- What do you need to do to increase the chances of a better outcome the next time you try?
Never let a poor outcome go to waste. Each one hides a nugget of wisdom. Recognizing your weaknesses empowers you to address them.
Commit to improving yourself in preparation for your next attempt. Make a plan and write it down; it will motivate you and rekindle your desire.
Step 4 — Why
Now it’s time to remind yourself why you chose this path. A short manifesto will help strengthen your resolve and motivate you before the critical final step.
Use this simple template to organize your thoughts.
- What is it about [your desire] that compels you to move forward?
- What goal do you strive to achieve?
Use the answers from those questions to write a short manifesto. See examples below:
I write because my story can save other business people from bankruptcy. I won’t stop until a top magazine publishes my story.
I took this one from a letter that appeared in “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women” by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
“My mind is fully made up… the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing.”
Keep it short and straightforward. Don’t overcomplicate it.
Step 5 — Leap
It sounds reasonable to take a break and incorporate your learning before you try again. I find that to be terrible advice. In the throes of failure, you need hope and momentum.
A former sales mentor of mine used to say, “Leap forward when you least feel like it. Action kickstarts momentum and rekindles hope.”
If you wrote a story that bombed, make sure another one is in the works. If your project failed, begin a new one.
Always have something new in the queue, even if it’s just an idea that has yet to germinate.
Of course, you should incorporate the learning from your failure into your next endeavor. But don’t wait. Inaction leads to resignation.
It may not come easy, but you can be that hero — the one others look up to for your perseverance in the face of obstacles. With the right perspective, you can see failure for what it is, a detour on your way to success.