How do I learn to master failure with grace?
April 24, 2013 10:12 AM   Subscribe

What resources, whether they're books, websites, or other media address how to stop letting success and failure affect me so much? In other words, how can I start accepting failure as an inevitability?

For a very long time I have been letting my success and failures define my happiness. It's very draining keeping my self-confidence and contentment wrapped up in external events, and I'm tired of it. To top it off, I don't think I ever really learned how to deal with rejection and failure in a healthy way. I tend to internalize failure, and it only makes things worse. I don't want to try again. I shut myself down from constructive criticism.

As an aside, I've been practicing mindfulness meditation for the past two years. While this is helpful in recognizing when these thoughts are intruding, it's not exactly a fix in stopping them. I still get down when an outcome does not arrive as expected, even though I am aware that outcomes won't always arrive as expected.
posted by helios410 to Human Relations (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Have you encountered the different phrasings of "fail early, fail often" that seemed to be everywhere in the past couple of years? Here's one longer-form piece, but there are a number of essays and articles on the topic that might be helpful to you--the gist being that failure and rebounding are essential to success. Interesting stuff.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:19 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I collect quotes like the following:

Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. -- Bill Gates

I have not failed. I've just learned 10,000 ways that won't work. -- Thomas Edison

My oldest son made teachers crazy. Since he was a child, I never treated his mistakes as something bad. I never taught him he had "failed" or misbehaved or whatever. Childhood is a time for learning. Mistakes are a learning opportunity. So he often just looked at teachers funny when they gave him bad grades after not adequately explaining something to him. He felt that was their failure.

It sounds to me like you never got to just be a kid, exploring the world. It sounds like someone must have really set you up for failure and then blamed you. I suggest you journal or do therapy or whatever to deconstruct that experience.

Adulthood still offers lots of opportunities for learning. A hobby might be a good opportunity to experience firsthand learning from mistakes without a lot of baggage. You need to succeed at work (cuz: money). But a solitary hobby can be a sandbox for exploring and learning and growing without a lot of judgement that not getting it "right" the first time is something terrible.

It might also help to seek out the company of certain types of people. Doctors get a lot of pressure to get it right ("First, fo no harm") but physicists are taught to "fail early, fail often." So people with certain personalities or jobs or hobbies may be a refreshing change of pace. I am very risk averse by nature. My oldest son is very risk seeking. His feedback has done me a lot of good.
posted by Michele in California at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Instead of just mindfulness, try practicing compassion towards yourself. You are a person born into X circumstances with X privileges and burdens, and you are, presumably, doing the best you can.

Try asking yourself, "Would it have required a superpower, like psychic abilities, the ability to stop time, or above-genius-level intelligence, to have avoided this mistake?"

If the answer is yes, try reminding yourself of that every time you start to put yourself on the hook for it. You are not a superhero. You are just one person in a huge complex society, with limited amounts of information and time to work with. There will be mistakes. Mistakes are, in fact, happening around you at every single moment.
posted by emjaybee at 10:58 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Keep going with the mindfulness meditation. I admit that it took me much longer than two years of practice to realize that the point isn't to stop the negative (or other) thoughts. The point is not to mind them any more.
posted by janey47 at 11:03 AM on April 24, 2013

I've failed before, but I just endured my most spectacular failure to date. After steadily rising in the ranks in my career after college, this month, I was essentially fired from the highest position I've ever held. The first two or three days afterward were brutal.

My parents' mantra to me when I was a kid. "I failed the test." "Did you try your best? Then it's okay." Failing means that you tried. I had swallowed my fear about the job being too much for me. I had worked tremendously hard throughout college and my career to get to that point. The failure ultimately doesn't matter. You cannot fail unless you try, and trying is what is important.
posted by anotheraccount at 11:07 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try practices that increase humility. The more you can admit to not knowing it all, the easier it will feel in those times when you are shown that you don't know it all.

Accept that you actually don't know it all. And it's ok. And now that you don't know it all, you can have a lot of fun!

Mindfulness meditation can help you here - learn to sit with the bad feelings that arise when you're shown a mistake. Say to yourself "this is just a feeling" and let it pass.

Go to the gym and get a personal trainer or take spin classes with someone who will "push" you. Let him/her push you. See the results.

Read books about learning to be less defensive. People may sense your defensiveness and avoid helping you now. Learn to hear what they are saying, as opposed to bristling about how they say it. Meditate on feeling that people are equals. Meditate on seeing yourself through their eyes. Meditate on seeing their point of view completely.

Seek out people who are experts in a field you wish to master. Business. Sports. Language. Science. When you are convinced they know more than you, show them your work, and let them critique your work. If you are passionate about perfecting that art, you will embrace their critique because it will make you better. Focus on your personal desire to be excellent, not the shame of a "mistake". (Personal anecdote: I used to play sports and snapped at anyone who "corrected" me. Eight years later I found out that one of the people "correcting" me had been playing at the national level, but I had been too arrogant to take his advice. What a missed opportunity. I remember this the next time people correct me.)

Finally, if you're into meditation... try prostrations (the prayer bows of monks). Find a picture of someone you admire, put it on a little shrine and prostrate to it, thinking to yourself "this person worked hard, and perfected this skill; oh how I wish to perfect this skill also". Don't ask me why it works to reduce pride and increase humility, but it totally does.

You will find that there are teachers everywhere. Good luck.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:09 AM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]

May I ask how have you been practicing mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness and insight meditation is a journey to understand one's own pain and suffering. We then learn lessons from seeing just how we hurt ourselves through a life time's accumulation of unhelpful thinking/emotional habits.

From "While this is helpful in recognizing when these thoughts are intruding, it's not exactly a fix in stopping them", may I conjecture that you have focused more on the "thinking" aspect of mindful self-observation, than the "emotional". We humans are comprised of layers of interwoven thoughts and feelings, with thoughts as the outer-most armor to protect underlying feelings of fear, shame, and anxiety. Indeed, we are very good at using thoughts to fool ourselves into believing the underlying feelings do not exist, or are different from what they really are.

Meditation is an opportunity not only to observe how we can have intrusive thoughts, but also to see--with kindness and compassion toward ourselves--what painful wounds they are hiding. What does "success" and "failure" mean to you? When you think about them, what feelings or memories do they call up? Which memories give you particular pleasure, which memories a particular stab of anxiety? And why? Follow the white rabbit.

When I first began looking within, all kinds of buried emotions and old wounds came up. I'd marvel how I'd thought myself a fully functioning, self-confident person, yet here were all these things proving that I was blind and fooling myself. Finding and facing pain is a good thing, though. If we didn't know we suffered, how could we heal?

It is a difficult journey, but such a worthwhile one. Don't give up on it. I found this book particularly helpful. Good luck.
posted by enlivener at 11:58 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing that has really helped me is to accept criticism as feedback and say 'Thank you' for it. I still feel like running to the toilets, hyperventilating and crying, but it helps me to get into the mindset temporarily of thinking about how I can use this feedback to move forward.

It also helps me to see everything I do as a work in progress because that means it can change and get better in the future.
posted by kadia_a at 12:14 PM on April 24, 2013

Up until a few years ago, I tried hard not to fail at anything, and I succeeded a lot by some measures, but I was miserable.

If you're always trying not to fail, and that attitude has been a constant whenever you've not been happy, then you can look at failure as a path to happier times (that is, if you really try to analyze why you failed and change the behavior after).
posted by 3FLryan at 12:17 PM on April 24, 2013

Yesterday I made an FPP about a little boy named Audri. He has an amazing perspective on this.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:04 PM on April 24, 2013

Sounds a lot like what Brene Brown talks about. You might want to check out her books Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.
posted by biscuits at 2:29 PM on April 24, 2013

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

I wish I had read this book years ago, I recommend it to all my students.
posted by nanook at 5:15 PM on April 24, 2013

Consider the impermanence of any success. Like your own life, anything you "succeed" at (our fail at) will quickly be washed away. Identifying with any of them will only bring you pain.
posted by ead at 7:34 PM on April 24, 2013

This is about rejection, not failure exactly, but you may find it inspirational: 100 days of rejection

I've been trying to internalize the notion that to ever be good at something you have to tolerate sucking at it for a while. I think Ira Glass discusses this - Ah, here it is.

And amongst some artists there is this idea: You have a lovely new sketchbook. Pages are clean and smooth. You are paralyzed with anxiety - what if you draw badly? What if you make a mess in this lovely book? The way to get around that fear is to WRECK THE FIRST PAGE. Just go to town and make a mess of it. Since your goal was to "fail", you've "succeeded" - the New Book spell is lifted and you are free to sketch or paint whatever you like in the rest of it. Along those lines, I liked The Creative License.

There are some parts of life where that definitely won't work, but in some cases you can dive in with gusto: "All right, today I am going to SUCK HARD at knitting a sock / playing the flute / understanding Khazakstan. Let's DO THIS!" And when it's over, no matter how much it sucks, your next one will be better. Because you laid the groundwork for a better sock by embracing the suckage of the first sock.
posted by bunderful at 8:30 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

At one point in my career, I was a hardware engineer for a product that was being provided by another company to our company. We were testing an early prototype in the lab when it literally started jumping around and smoking, then stopped working.

Concerned about schedules, etc., I was pretty freaked out: "OMG! This is terrible!"

The engineer from the other company, though, was almost gleeful. He countered, "No it isn't; we are learning something!"

I've found that to be true- when you suffer miserable failure, you take away lessons that will make you more successful in the future. There have been times since when things went terribly badly and coworkers didn't take it well, but I try to actively look for the lessons to be learned.
posted by Doohickie at 6:25 AM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Should I attempt legal action to get this invoice...   |   Astronomical tourism in Chile Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.