What failure can teach us about success

How to reframe your thinking and use setbacks to your advantage
Published August 6, 2018

Our relationship with failure and mistakes is often unhealthy. We put success on a pedestal – our social media highlight reels show only the good stuff, for example – and in turn we fear failure, and we often don’t know how to deal with it when it inevitably comes calling. If we’re not careful, we can allow failure to completely defeat us, stopping us from working toward our goals simply because we got knocked down along the way.


But failure is an integral part of success. If we pause, take a deep breath and look at failure head-on, we can actually use it to our advantage.


“One cannot truly experience success without experiencing failures,” says Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California.


“A ‘failure’ is a moment, an incident, a behaviour, but it is never a person! A lapse or moment of weakness is not a catastrophe, but an opportunity to learn,” he says.


Nutrition coach and personal trainer Esther Avant, who runs Esther Avant Wellness Coaching out of Hawaii, reminds us that perfection does not exist – so we can all cross that off our to-do list right now.


“All we can ever do is strive to do our best, day after day,” she says. “Over time, our best becomes better and better. But we’re never perfect and it’s unproductive to expect that.”


How can we learn from a perceived “failure”?

Rather than feeling like a failure after a slip-up, look at it all as a learning experience, Avant says.


“You've learned now something that didn't work and that’s just as valuable as learning something that does. Rather than wallowing in self-pity when we slip up, taking a few minutes to analyze what happened – and why – can teach us how to avoid the same pitfall in the future. And that is valuable!”


“Allow it to be a process,” DePompo says.


And if you want to do some deep learning about your “failure,” he recommends getting really curious. “… see if you can come up with three different things you could have done differently and see where you can implement these changes in the days ahead.”


How do we reframe “failure thinking”?


Don’t fear failure, DePompo says. See it as part of the process required to reach your goals.


“We cannot have a worthy goal and not have struggles along the way or else it would have never needed to be a goal in the first place.”


How do we keep going when we’re feeling defeated?

  • Accept that none of us is ever going to be perfect
  • Don’t beat yourself up
  • Look at the big picture


“To keep motivated when you're feeling defeated, it helps, first, to accept that you're never going to be perfect in the first place,” Avant says. “When you acknowledge that things are going to happen, it becomes a lot easier to stomach your missteps.”

Beyond that, Avant says, it helps to remind yourself frequently exactly why you’re trying to make changes in the first place. For example, if you’re creating a healthier lifestyle, don’t focus on a surface-value goal such as “I want to lose weight” – get to the “deep-rooted, emotionally charged why,” Avant says.


For example, “reminding yourself that your health is important so you can live a long life and see your grandkids grow up helps keep things in perspective and motivates you to keep trucking along, even when it’s not always smooth sailing.”


DePompo reminds us to be kind to ourselves in moments of defeat.


“Think about these times with the same understanding as you would if your child or loved one made the same error,” he says.


And always look at the big picture, DePompo says. Remember that “progress is never a clean upward slope.” You might have gotten off track with your goal this week, but look at how far you’ve come since you began.