It seems like we have two options in life: succeed or fail. Get what you worked for and you're a success. Fall short of that, and you're a failure. We think about these two outcomes as if they were binary.
But maybe it's time we rethink failure. That is, how we can use failure to provide advantages that we might not gain otherwise. Here are four of the most important ways.
1. Use the emotions from failure to become stronger.
Author David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character: "We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character."
Building a business from scratch takes a lot of emotional strength. But it also takes honesty in knowing when to proceed and when to make changes. The next time you reach a roadblock, instead of trying to force things, pause for a moment.
When you take the time to understand your actions and those of the people around you, you can use your failures to build the necessary qualities for success. For instance, instead of constantly re-launching a product that doesn't resonate with your audience, stop and ask people for feedback on what they really want. Humility may not be a popular choice, but confronting your past decisions and learning to adapt will save you a lot of heartache and set you on the right path.
2. Look at failure as a lesson.
Many people have a tendency to shy away from failure. It gets swept under the carpet or avoided altogether. But if left unattended, small failures can snowball into large failures.
For example, dismissing someone else's ideas once can lead to a mediocre result. Constantly ignoring the feedback of others over and over again can create a culture of mistrust and lack of communication, which leads to a toxic environment. So how do we stop unhealthy behaviors in their tracks?
Researchers Mark Cannon and Amy Edmondson found that in an organization, everyday failures can serve as 'early warning signs'. If detected and addressed early, catastrophic failures can be prevented.
In one example, the CEO of a company pulled out a $450 'mistake' out of the dumpster, mounted it on a plaque, and organized a presentation ceremony. The winner, initially embarrassed, eventually took pride in how his mistake helped prevent future similar mistakes from happening.
From a personal perspective, this means opening yourself to failure. Instead of shifting the blame and pretending nothing happened, acknowledge that a mistake occurred and see it as a learning opportunity. Ask yourself: "What can I take away from this experience? How can I improve for the next time?"
3. Reframe failure to motivate yourself.
In psychology, there's a term called cognitive reappraisal, which is a way of changing our emotions during a stressful situation. When we regulate negative emotions, we're better able to cope with difficult events and reduce feelings of depression.
I remember talking with a client prospect. After a few discussions, she was excited and ready to start working together. Papers were signed and files were delivered. After a couple months, however, she decided to back out. At the time, my initial response was confusion and sadness.
But eventually, I evaluated the situation more clearly. While it was disappointing, the person didn't believe we were the right fit, which made me realize that fit was more important than simply trying to work with everyone. Instead of seeing failure as the end of the road, see it as an inevitable part of improving yourself and finding better opportunities.
4. Apply the skills from your previous failure.
One of Forbes' 30 Under 30 for 2018, Benny Luo, is the founder of NextShark, an online publication that covers topics relating to Asian youth. Before that, he tried numerous ventures from network marketing to online poker.
As Luo said, "While I did find some minimal success, all of these ventures eventually turned into failures. But, one day I realized that after each failure, I always gained some valuable knowledge of things I could apply to or avoid in my next project. That was the attitude I adopted after every failure from then on, I focused on what I gained instead of what I lost, because that's what really matters in the end."
Even if your first idea doesn't work, you can pick up lifelong skills along the way. For instance, you learn about different monetization strategies, gain technical expertise, and know how to approach similar decisions in the future. By taking Luo's attitude and focusing on gain rather than loss, you can start each project with a stronger skillset than the previous one.
In the process of working towards an outcome, we train ourselves to think and act in certain ways. Regardless of whether you reach success or failure, you still carry those skills -- and it's that learning process which shapes the person you become.