How We Handle Failure

As I was reacquainting myself with my students last week (yes, we start school WAY too early in the south!), I reminded them of my belief that the math they will learn in my class is important. But the lessons in learning how to handle frustration and failure are even more important. Because, let’s face it, many of these kids may never have to solve a quadratic equation as an adult or explain why an exponential function has an asymptote, but they will certainly face failure. Probably many times.

And I’ve to realize how important learning how to handle failure really is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the primary forces that shapes who we become. The good news? Even if we have a had a subpar response to defeat in the past, with practice and the right mindset, we can learn to improve our relationship with failure.

Five Negative Responses to Failure

Giving Up

I think all of us have released the words, “I give up!” in frustration when the fifteenth attempt at something still neglects to result in the desired outcome. It’s easy to become fatigued and weary, especially once the thinking brain has expended all of its energy and allows emotions to take the helm.

Internalizing the Message

“I suck,” we mutter to ourselves, confusing the line the action with the person, believing that we ARE a failure instead of a being that failed at something. This response is often ingrained in childhood when perfection (or at least the illusion of it) is expected of you from the adults in your life. You equate failure with rejection.

Avoiding Risk

If you don’t try, you cannot fail. Some respond to failure by refusing to take risk, preferring to practice the perfect and staying safely on known ground. This choice is rationalized as prudent, even wise. Yet the decision is made out of a fear of failure rather than a careful weighing of the potential risks and rewards.

Lashing Out

Some get angry when facing failure, attempting to cover the discomfort and vulnerability inherent in defeat with a veneer of hostility. “It’s not me, it’s you!” the response insists, hoping that by keeping people on the defensive, the failure will be overlooked.

Hiding the Evidence

This response is another that develops when failure is not accepted. When the inevitable happens, it is seen as shameful. And what do we do with that which shames us? We bury it.

Five Positive Responses to Failure

Accepting the Inevitability

Perfection is an illusion. There is no creature on this earth that succeeds in everything it tries. The newborn foal stumbles and falls before it learns how to walk on its shaky and spindly legs. The tree fails to root down deeply enough into the dense soil and almost topples during a storm.

And we are no different. Failure is as much a part of life as breathing. By accepting that, we can remove some of the emotion often associated with it. Rather than being shameful or a sign of weakness, failure is a sign of life.

Viewing Failure as Information

When I was preparing my classroom for the new school year, I had to adjust the legs on several of the student chairs. I glanced at the screws holding the legs together and estimated the proper size of screwdriver needed. On my first attempt, I managed to almost completely strip the screw while failing to loosen it enough to adjust the leg. That failure provided me with information – the screwdriver was the wrong size.

Once we have information, we are able to make adjustments and try a new approach. Without failure, we would never know what modifications are beneficial. Failure is a part of evolution; it steers us towards what works.

Taking Responsibility Within Locus of Control

Those that know how to use failure to their benefit are quick to own their failures, but only the ones within their control. There are two important facets to this response. The first is that once we claim responsibility for something, we give ourselves the power to change it. Secondly, by only accepting responsibility for things within our influence, we refrain from wasting energy trying to change things that we do not have dominion over.

It can be scary to admit that you failed. We don’t want others to see us as weak, as flawed. Yet by taking ownership, you remove the opportunity for others to use your failures against you. And the reality is that much of the time, people respect those that immediately and completely admit their failings as long as they are also making an honest attempt to learn from those defeats.

Reminder to be Open to Learning

Do professional athletes ever outgrow their need for a coach?


Yet all too often, we become so comfortable (okay, cocky) within our own areas of expertise that we forget that we should still be learning.

And failure is happy to give us that reminder that there is always room for growth. For improvement. Failure equals humility and humility keeps us open and pliable.

See Failure as Opportunity

And this is what it comes down to.

Every failure is an opportunity.

A chance to try again.

Only now with more experience and knowledge of what doesn’t work.

Every failure is an opportunity.

A change to do better. To respond differently.

Without failure, there is no learning. No growing.

When we see failure as something to avoid, we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to become the best version of ourselves.

And when we are able to become comfortable with failure, we are able to use it to take the next step. And then the next.

We will stumble. We will fall.

But as long as we get back up, learn from what didn’t work and keep trying?

Well, there’s no stopping us.

Thank you for sharing!

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