It’s Okay to Fail, But Learn a Way to do so & Reap Benefits

Failure. It conjures memories of getting that shocking “F” or “D” on a math test, not making it to the finish line in a race, losing out on a bid for a home, having an editor critique a story and say rewrite it, never receiving an invite to a party we really wanted to attend or not finding a job after multiple interviews. The list of disappointments continues.

We’ve all gone through failure. One can't get through life without experiencing it. It’s an integral part of the human experience, much like joy, love, pain and sorrow, says Jill Davis, a Madison, Wisconsin, psychotherapist with a private consulting practice assisting pre-med and medical students.

Blow a job interview? It’s okay to take a hit, wallow in self-pity, process the failure, but we and experts suggest learning from it, and then getting back on the proverbial horse. Kids not getting into their first college choices? After they get over the disappointment, they discover how plan B and C can offer silver linings. Davis advocates taking time to grieve. “It gives you the opportunity to reflect: Who can support me right now? What did I contribute to this situation? What aspects of this situation were out of my control? What can I learn from it? What door might it now open?”  

Then frame the failure properly to make it feel less like a personal failure. “Failure is integral to both learning and to life and responding to it takes time, patience, persistence and resilience,” she says. Consider this analogy that Davis posits. “If we reflect back to the time of parenting our infants and toddlers, we all remember those early years of their learning to walk: the multiple steps it took to master it, pulling oneself up to stand, then letting go the sofa or chair to stand on one's own, then taking those first tentative steps and tumbling, and all the subsequent falls and slips that define that process. That image encapsulates life. Slips and falls along the way.”

What probably hurts us the most is watching our kids and grandkids when they've experienced problems and not yet learned the secrets of resiliency. We have learned in our older age that having small failures early in life, when a child has the safety net of grandparents, parents, teachers and others, helps us sort out the facts from emotion. “I think the greatest gift we can give our children as their parents and the best gift we can give ourselves is to practice flexing our ‘resilience’ muscle. Life requires our using it so often. So, stretch!” says Davis.

And keep in mind, Davis says, that we are not our failures. “They do not define us.” She cites an example of her work with medical students who are applying to residency programs and are trying to match into very competitive specialties such as dermatology and orthopedics. Davis notes that both require stellar grades and medical board scores. “Some of my students don't have, what I call, ‘on paper,’ the statistics that make it more likely that they will match in their chosen field.” 

She adds, “My mantra to my students is this: ‘Don't confuse who you are with what is on paper.’ By this I mean that my students' identity, worth and potential are not tied to or captured by a random test score (residencies only see the result of one test) or a grade on a rotation through pediatrics. I have so many students who shine in residency and as physicians who did not enter residency looking ‘stellar’on paper.” 

Davis gives a good example, citing the case of a friend who was fired from her job after just two years. She was devastated. As a big sports fan, she hung on to the mantra, says Davis, that, "Coaches get fired all the time”—and “…often go on to greater success with another team.” She did find a new job, says Davis, that is better suited to her skill set and found happiness with inspiring colleagues who did not undermine her. "You never know what to wish for. Getting fired led her to the job she continued in and loved until she retired.” 

It’s also important to focus on happiness rather than drown in failure. In fact, failure can make you more determined to hang on and use better techniques next time. Davis alludes to a piece in the Harvard Gazette, which offers a longitudinal study on happiness, titled, “Good Genes are nice, but joy is better” by Liz Mineo, Harvard staff writer. Davis quotes from the conclusion: “’Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives...Those ties protect people from life’s discontents [or failures], help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives."  (April 11, 2017)

Maybe knowing about failure and searching for true happiness is also the reason that Yale University’s most popular course is its Psychology and the Good Life taught by psychologist Laurie Santos. It includes science-backed steps to be happier and less stressed, including social connections. A few years after it was introduced its ratings went down and the teacher took a leave from teaching it.

Does she view that as a failure? We’d love to know. But we also think that her huge success should soften any feeling of failure and help her get back on the proverbial horse. Perhaps, it can even trigger a greater incentive to chart a new adventure or course. 

1 comment

  • Ellen Dunne

    Incredibly interesting and helpful. Thank you for giving me a new framework to look at setbacks !

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