Unexpected Lessons In The Art Of Failing Gracefully

An Olympic snowboarder, a Hollywood stuntman, and a corporate psychologist offer their best tips on failing gracefully.

Unexpected Lessons In The Art Of Failing Gracefully
[Image: Flickr user Brad Hammonds]

Everyone hates the “F” word–failure. But in business, and in life, it goes with the territory. Whether it’s launching a business, trying something new, or simply putting yourself out there, you’re taking a risk. We asked an Olympic snowboarder, a Hollywood stuntman, and a corporate psychologist for their best tips on failing gracefully. Here’s what they shared:


1. Don’t let loss define you.

After winning a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics, Kelly Clark placed fourth at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, when she fell on the landing during the women’s half-pipe. It was a big disappointment, but Clark didn’t let those circumstances determine her choices. “Don’t get your sense of self-worth from your performance,” Clark advises. Had she done so, the loss would have crushed her, she says.

Instead, Clark’s greatest victory came four years later at the 2010 Olympics, where she repeated the jump she’d attempted in 2006, and earned the bronze medal. Clark values her bronze medal more than the gold because of what she had to overcome. “You can’t be afraid to try again. It’s so important to realize you fell down, but you’re okay,” Clark says. She will compete at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi next month.

2. Set attainable goals.

After suffering a setback or defeat, you need to be able to dream again, Clark says, and you can do that by setting attainable goals. People get defeated and they talk about burnout–“burnout comes from unmet expectations,” Clark says. The larger goals may seem unattainable, but by setting and accomplishing smaller goals, you build confidence as you reach those goals. “You shouldn’t be defined by your goal,” Clark says.

3. Shift your perspective.

Instead of fearing failure, change your perspective and view it as a chance to be better, says Steve Wolf, president of Wolf Stuntworks, Inc., a movie stunt and special effects company in Austin, Texas. Wolf, whose work has appeared in Castaway and TV’s Law and Order, notes that “[w]e learn very little when things go as we expected.” “When something goes wrong, we focus on fixing the problem rather than fixing the blame. Failure is followed by this question: ‘What system, procedure, training, or equipment, had it been in place, would have prevented this problem?’ And we adjust accordingly,” Wolf says.

4. Find the silver lining.

Failure gives us the opportunity to practice gratitude and find the silver lining in the experience, says Dr. Patricia Thompson, an Atlanta-based corporate psychologist and management consultant. “Did it teach you something about yourself? Does it provide you with an opportunity to be resilient? Even though this went badly, are there other areas in your life that are positive? Practicing gratitude will help you guard against getting depressed as a result of the failure,” Thompson says.

5. Recognize that you’re in good company.

So many successful people have failed publicly, Thompson notes. Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade, and Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 27 times by publishers. Even basketball legend Michael Jordan addressed his failures in a popular Nike commercial a few years ago, saying: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”


“Understanding that you are in good company when you fail can help to take out some of the sting and enable you to recognize failure as part of the human condition,” Thompson says.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.