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You must stop protecting yourself from professional failure

Avoiding rejections protects our ego, but it also means we cheat ourselves out of growth.

You must stop protecting yourself from professional failure
[Source image: Richard Drury/Getty Images]

Typically, failure is something people avoid. It can be painful, career-limiting, and disheartening. But failure can also deliver significant advantages—and contrary to common belief, you may reach your goals (or resolutions for the new year) more effectively when you find ways to embrace failure.

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Failure has plenty of benefits—from stoking learning and new relationships to developing motivation and confidence. And there are some specific ways you can lean into an experience—ways to practice failure in order to achieve success.

Failure is integral to success

In reality, failure is part of success; and if you never fail, you are likely not trying hard enough or you may be deceiving yourself. To fail means you have reached for a new goal, and you can hone your approach for your next shot at it. To fail means you’ve had the opportunity to learn about the skills or capabilities you need to develop. And to fail means you have demonstrated commitment to something that matters to you.

In fact, if you rarely fail, you may lose motivation. Studies by the University of Arizona found that there is an optimal failure rate: If you fail 15% of the time, you will enhance learning, keep trying, and stay motivated. There is a Goldilocks factor at work here—a “just right” amount of failure. If you always fail or if you always succeed, you will tend to lose motivation; but when your aspiration is within reach, but with chances for loss and the need to stretch—the 85/15 rule—you’ll hang in there to reach your accomplishment.

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In addition, failure can enhance your chances of success. One study by Northwestern University found evidence of causal connections between failure and success. In a sample of 1,184 situations, when people tried again after they failed to achieve grant funding on their first attempt, they were significantly more likely to succeed on their next attempts.

Begin with clear goals

As described, it’s useful to embrace failure because you’ll stay motivated and increase your chances of reaching your aspirations—but your goal should still be to succeed. There’s a subtle but important difference in how you think about what you’re pursuing. Particularly in a competition, it’s better to set a goal to win, rather than setting a goal to sidestep failure.

A study at Penn State found that when people failed in a situation where they were hoping to “not lose” rather than to win, they felt worse emotionally and struggled to stay motivated. Strive to win the promotion, not just to avoid being bested by a colleague.

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How to embrace failure

There are some evidence-based ways to make friends with failure and reap the benefits:

  • Let go of a sense of fear. Remind yourself that failure is part of life and validate that your failure means you’re trying for something that matters to you. According to a study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, when people were afraid of failing, they tended to adopt goals that were limited or too easy in an attempt to protect their ego. They were also more likely to cheat, robbing themselves of feedback and learning. On the other hand, when they weren’t afraid of failing, they pursued goals that were focused on their own interests and that contributed to their growth and development. It also made them more likely to use effective strategies to succeed.
  • Focus on learning. If you never fail, you don’t have the opportunity to learn as deeply because you’ve succeeded, patted yourself on the back, and kept moving. But failure can be a terrific source for learning about situations, about yourself, and about your team. Research by the University of Colorado found that when organizations lost, they learned much more from the failures. Losing a customer or failing to be first to market with the new product can cause reevaluation of processes, systems, and approaches—all of which can contribute to future success. If your team fails to win the customer’s business, consider whether you can learn more about the market to help you succeed next time. Or if you fail to get the job, evaluate how you can perform better in the interview process. Learning is one of the biggest benefits of failure—so, leaning into failure is fundamentally about using a loss for the insights it can provide for winning the next time.
  • Feel the pain. It is a myth that you should avoid feeling the pain of a loss or a failure. In fact, research from Ohio State University found that when people focused on their emotions after a loss, they were more likely to do better the next time. Too often, people tend to rationalize defeats and process them cognitively—telling themselves the loss didn’t matter or it was beyond their control. These are efforts to protect their egos. But when people concentrated on how bad the failure felt, they were more likely to get motivated and figure out how to do better the next time. So, rather than avoiding the sting of a negative performance evaluation or ignoring the pain of losing your job, reflect on how it feels and how you can learn and improve for the next time.
  • Be positive. You can also use failure to advantage by managing your own thought processes. Studies at the University of Kent found that when people denied failure, disengaged themselves from the situation, or vented in a negative manner, they were flung off course from happiness and satisfaction. Instead, when they tried to see their failure in a more positive light (for example, based on what they could take away as lessons learned) or when they accepted it or when they used humor—these strategies tended to help maintain their happiness and motivation. Therefore, when you fail, keep in mind all you can learn from the experience. These kinds of positive views of the failure will contribute to your ability to succeed the next time.

It’s not necessary to idealize failure or to seek it, but if you’re working hard and striving for the next great thing, you’ll certainly experience it. Embrace failure and lean into the experience. These responses will help you get better all the time, and pave the way for a terrific year in which you reach your goals and achieve your resolutions.


Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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