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How to accept failure on the path to success

If you plan to succeed in life, unfortunately some failure on the way is inevitable.

Yes, you might get dumped, fluff the interview, miss out on that dream uni course, job or promotion, lose money on a business or property purchase, or plunge headlong into a career you’re just not suited to.

The good news? Anyone who has ever been successful has had plenty of hiccups, missteps or flat-out rejections along the way.

Take one of history’s greatest inventors, Thomas Edison, who said that ‘many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up’.

Edison, who invented the incandescent light bulb and one of the world’s earliest motion picture cameras, never let a challenge get him down. ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,’ he said.

Why failure is good for you

There is one sure-fire way to avoid failing – and that’s deciding never to push yourself beyond your boundaries, says Professor Michael Leiter, a professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Deakin.

‘I think if you want to learn something new, then you have to accept the risk of looking like an idiot,’ he says. ‘Otherwise you’re just going go on to do things that you’re already adept at doing.

‘If you’re very happy where you are, then that’s fine. However some people aspire to something more, and want to get someplace else.’

So if you’re failing, you’re also getting outside your comfort zone – and that’s one step closer to eventual success.

'I think if you want to learn something new, then you have to accept the risk of looking like an idiot.'

Prof. Michael Leiter,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Have you actually failed?

We’re not in control of everything life throws at us, and sometimes you just can’t win ‘em all. For example, if you miss out on a job that 500 other people also applied for, it’s natural to be disappointed, but you shouldn’t take it too personally (though you could ask for feedback or work on improving your skills or networks).

‘There are so many really talented people in this world,’ Prof. Leiter says.

‘There is this cultural thing that says, well if you care enough, you’re going to succeed. But that’s not true. A lot of people care very deeply and they don’t succeed.’

Sometimes, it just depends on your standards – and your perspective.

A few years ago, a Princeton University professor surprised everyone, including himself, when a ‘CV of failures’ he posted online went viral.

Johannes Haushofer listed everything from degree programs he didn’t get in to, to rejections from academic journals, failed funding applications and awards he didn’t receive.

His reason for compiling the CV? To balance the record and provide some perspective.

‘Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible,’ Prof. Haushofer noted.

‘I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.’

How to get comfortable with career failure

So what’s the best way to accept your ‘failures’ along the way, so they become just a stepping-stone on your path to success?

The first thing might be to stop shifting the blame, Prof. Leiter says.

‘The natural tendency for people is to attribute to themselves – for example ‘success is because of my skill and talent and ability and insight’,’ he says. ‘So then failure is just circumstances, like ‘it’s wasn’t me, it was just bad luck’.’

The danger there is if you learn nothing from the experience, you might just do the same thing all over again.

Instead, Prof. Leiter suggests reflecting on what happened by getting your thoughts on paper. ‘I think really just writing down, ‘what did I learn from this? What am I going to do differently next time’?’

If a group project hasn’t worked out, it’s worth getting together and doing a post-mortem on where things went wrong, he says.

‘That’s going to make it more, ‘OK, we tried together, we sort of fell in this together’, rather than just people within the team just blaming each other.’

Bouncing back

The reality is that some career failure is just part of life – but that’s OK, Prof. Leiter says.

‘As long as you’re doing something that it’s possible to succeed at then you should be able to improve your edge over time,’ he says.

‘But you do have to be able to say, ‘well alright, I can survive failure. I don’t have to win all the time, every time’.’

After all, it’s a competitive world out there, but that’s what makes it interesting, Prof Leiter says.

No reward without risk: Meet three people who took a gamble to help their career.

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Prof. Michael Leiter
Prof. Michael Leiter

Professor, Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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