Befriending Failure

Accepting failure as a healthy part of life is easier said than done. As with everything, it takes practice and strategy. I’ve found that having effective tools in place to deal with failure allows me to be less afraid of it. By changing my mindset, I can look at my ‘failures’ as ‘things that didn’t go the way I initially planned’.

Drama has always been a passion of mine. When I was offered the opportunity to turn myself to public speaking in year 8, my answer was a confident “yes please”. I was entered, as part of a team of three, into a public speaking competition. The night of the competition came around quickly; I rehearsed my speech before I left my house and despite being extremely anxious, I was quietly confident in my abilities. This would be the first of four rounds, culminating in the national final.

To put it melodramatically, our entry was a disaster. We had grossly underestimated the requirements of the competition. We were under rehearsed, under researched and I wanted to sweep the whole embarrassing experience under a rug. We failed to progress from the first round but my dad suggested we would do better next year now we truly understood the requirements of the competition.

The attitude of my team was a resounding ‘never again’.

Four years later, my team placed second in the national final of the same competition. How did we achieve that? Two more years of failing. Which brings me to the first way I have befriended failure.

1. Fail differently

I've learnt that failure is unavoidable, but the trick to dealing with it is to fail differently. Thomas Edison put this eloquently, ‘I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work’. 

Every time we entered the competition, we had a better approach because we’d learnt from previous years’ mistakes. Every judge who picked fault with us taught us a different lesson and the result was our most mature entry in 2015. We developed what we did with every rehearsal, round and year of competing. I can’t avoid failing, but I can avoid failing the same way twice.

2. Allow yourself time

Coming to terms with failure is never going to happen instantaneously. I have been a competitive swimmer for nine years, but it doesn’t make accepting a bad race any easier. Sport is brutal, you fail hard. Taking yourself to the point of complete physical exhaustion, only to be kicked in the teeth by the scoreboard, is horrible.

The way I have learnt to deal with failure in sport is a transferable skill. Having taken a knock back, I prefer a few minutes alone. I take time to let my impulsive negative emotions flow, instead of offloading them onto those around me. There is no shame in needing a moment alone before you can rationally assess what happened. The lessons I need to learn will still be there when I get back. 

3. Don’t always jump to do a post-mortem

To learn from failure, we must analyse where we went wrong. However, it is important not to begin to pull apart past events too promptly. I once had a teacher who used to tell his students never to talk to each other after an exam. “Exam post-mortems” as he called them, were useless and only cause undue stress. He had a point. There is no use in analysing your answers against those of your peers. Now I always wait for my results, then uncover my mistakes using the mark scheme. The same goes for interviews, in the past I have been overly keen to self-assess and decide why I failed, before I even know the outcome.

There’s no point in kicking myself for failing before I have conclusive proof. And those times that I do falter, I wait for (or chase up) that all-important feedback, before I attempt to learn.

4. Don’t focus on the outcome

Swimming has completely changed my attitude towards tasks and how I prepare. As an athlete, I’ve learnt a lot about goal setting. There are two types of goals; process and outcome. The type of goal you set in any situation will decide how you assess the outcome of any situation. As the title suggests, an outcome goal is what you desire the outcome of a given situation to be. For example, the outcome goal for any interview is going to be getting a job offer. Process goals are more structured, they state how you will achieve your outcome goal. Using the interview situation-

Outcome goal- get a job offer

Process goals- smile and make eye contact with the interviewer, use relevant anecdotes, have a firm hand shake, prepare my own question for the interviewer etc.

Process goals are far easier to control. They are attained via the way we conduct ourselves and theoretically, if we achieve enough process goals, we achieve our outcome goal/s. In situations where I fail to achieve an outcome goal, process goals will not only shed light on why I failed, but allow me to see in which parts of the process I succeeded. This approach helps me perform under pressure and find more reasons to be proud of myself.

5. Build your resilience

Every failure is an opportunity to grow my resilience. Inevitably, I will face bigger knock backs and pull through them because I’ve built a thick skin. In the long term, I know that difficult situations will help my long-term growth.

Things not going the way you hoped is never pleasant, but would success taste as sweet if it was a given? It took years for me to learn how to succeed at public speaking. Failure was actually necessary for success in the long run.

Failing is healthy and unavoidable. Having ways to cope with it allows me to learn from it and move on. Put frankly, if I’m not constantly failing, I know my goals aren’t challenging enough!


Anna Doughty


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