From Failure to Lesson: The Four-Step Guide to Making Failure Meaningful

From Failure to Lesson: The Four-Step Guide to Making Failure Meaningful

Failure has become a trend in our society. Many business leaders and motivational gurus (check your Pinterest for “failure quotes”) actively look for the chance to fail. Failure, they say, means you’re doing something that you can learn from. After all, Thomas Edison is quoted as having saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Steve Jobs was fired by the company he would one day lead to become one of the top companies in the world. Failure is good, right?

The truth of the matter is that leaders and motivational quotes don’t show the actual reality of failure. Yes, you can learn from failure. You can even grow from it, but it often takes a lot more time than we think.

Here are two examples to make the point:

Scenario A: You’re finally at the end of your long, college journey and preparing for your final semester before graduation. The day you start preparing for your graduation paperwork, you receive two emails. Email A says that your internship is set up and you are on track for graduation. Email B says that your financial aid is out.

Scenario B: You just landed an interview with a job that seemed absolutely perfect for you. You match every single qualification and the interview process is going well. You get a call asking you to come in for paperwork processing and then you go home. There is an eviction notice on your door.

In both of those situations, failure hurt. The person who lived through those scenarios (me) didn’t feel them like learning experiences. Those negative experience happened, despite my best efforts to keep everything afloat. After going through those experiences, I felt lost, and empty because I had no Plan B.

I did learn from those failures, eventually, but it took a lot of time and acceptance to go from failure to lesson from failure. I had to get to point where I could accept that (A) I had failed (B) I was not a failure. When I realized that it was OK for me to take as long as I needed to learn from my failure, I was able to deal with it better.

Failure comes in many shapes and forms. It can feel like a mosquito bite or it can feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado. As a result, your response to failure will not be the same. Some types, you might be able to shrug off. Others you might, hold on to for weeks, months, or even years.

That’s OK.

Learning from failure is not a sprint, but an endurance race with different starts and stops. To understand how to run your endurance race, you have to know and understand where you are now in the process of going from failure to lesson. Doing that involves self-work, understanding your emotions and thoughts, but you can jump-start that process by taking note of these four observations I have gained from my own experience in failure:

  1. Acceptance: Don’t sugarcoat failure. It feels crap and it should. Don’t deny or ignore the feelings you have on failing. They are key in motivating you to try again or try differently. Give yourself some time for your brain to process what happened.
  2. Control: Take stock of what you have left. Not every failure is final, nor is every final complete. Take a minute to see what failure actually means to you in this moment. Realize that your meaning of failure will change with time, but address any urgent issues or questions you have now.
  3. Trust: Believe in your brain. Failure only has the meaning we ascribe to. In other words, the fact that you didn’t get that client, that business, or that relationship doesn’t mean you failed. We tell our brain that we failed. Because we are the person that defines failure, we can also redefine if we allow our brains to do its work of asking questions and seeking answers.
  4. Lean In. Wonder about your failure. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and author, offers a very unique way to understand failure in her book, “Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better”. In that book, Chordon suggests that we deal with the uncertainty of fear with questions. Failure doesn’t tell you what will happen the next minute, next hour, or the next year. It can only tell what happened before. Because of that, your failure does not impact what can happen next. Take some time to wonder, “What does this mean?” and see what comes to mind.

These four observations represent a pathway from failure to lesson. We first have to accept what’s going on, control what he have left, and use that control to build trust and wonder. It was that process, unintentionally, while trying to redefine myself from scratch. Learning that it was OK for me to take some time to redefine my failure into a lesson gave me the insight I needed to actually learn from my failures.

Was your process going from failure to learning the same or did you encounter something different?

Charles Franklin

Written by Charles Franklin

Charles Franklin is an almost-graduated college dropout who survived 4 years as a content and marketing freelancer on his journey toward a new family legacy, happier world for all, and his secret dream of becoming Batman. He hopes to use his experiences, humor, and stories to help others convert their life's struggles into a powerful superhero legacy that infects others. His blog:
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