A healthy relationship with failure

When speaking recently with a wonderful professional in my industry about how we both helped clients develop useful mindsets for dealing with failure, she asked me whether I had written anything on the subject.

I was certain that I had, so I delved into my archives and stumbled upon something I had written seven years ago in 2015.

As I read through it, it felt like the work of a different person. At best, it seemed ordinary, and it made me smile wryly. I’ve become comfortable with assessing my efforts quite harshly, devoid of much emotion, which is in fact, a healthy approach towards self-improvement.

This approach was ingrained in me from a young age through my participation in sport. In the world of sport, defeat, disappointment, and failure are common daily occurrences. As an athlete you often, you approach your work knowing that the purpose of the day is to be tested both physically and emotionally.

Having our limitations exposed is what allows us to grow and improve. Without this, how can we ever reach our full potential?

If you, your team, or any part of your organisation is striving to achieve a set of goals or progress in a particular area, a healthy relationship with failure is required. An inevitable part of striving for improvement will see our character and skills tested as we press forward. In fact, exposing our weaknesses is an essential part of the excellence process.

To establish a healthy relationship with failure, it’s worth considering the paradigms of it being a journey verse being a destination.

Perhaps, we need both.

The journey paradigm helps us understand that failure is temporary and part of an ongoing process—a lifelong pursuit of improvement. I refer to this as the journey paradigm, seeking excellence. It’s work that’s never finished. This paradigm complements the intensity of striving for progress and achieving goals. This is the essence of a performance mindset, where outcomes matter.

Overemphasising one paradigm over the other can lead to imbalance. Life can become either too complacent or too stressful. A healthy relationship with failure integrates both the journey and destination paradigms, creating a harmonious balance.

To build a positive relationship with failure, consider these three factors:

  1. Excellence: An excellence mindset involves an unending and relentless quest for improvement. It’s a continuous process that is never truly complete. Growth and learning opportunities arise when we push the limits of our abilities. Rather than viewing failures as personal shortcomings, see them as essential aspects of self-improvement. Failure is the purest form of feedback when we’re striving for better, and setbacks can offer valuable lessons.
  2. Resilience: Resilience is not built on the comfortable side of failure. You need to have failure first before resilience can be built. Building resilience is an essential element of discipline. If you don’t have it, then minor failures and distractions can divert our focus from the journey. A healthy relationship with failure allows us to develop the ability to cope with setbacks, adapt to challenges, and persevere in the face of adversity. Yet, none of this happens without the presence of failure. Our failures should be considered stepping-stones towards success.
  3. Self-reflection and self-talk: Dedicate time and effort to reflect on your thoughts around failure. Analyse what went wrong, identify patterns or areas for improvement, and learn from your mistakes. But also, think deeply about your relationship with this temporary, yet supremely valuable, intruder in your life. Talking to and accepting the lesser version of yourself allows you to sidestep denial and confront failure.

If you have a set of goals and a journey mapped out to achieve them, recognise that this often means you are not currently at your best, but are planning to be better. Failure will have a constant presence, but if you stick to your plan, put in the effort, and learn from your failures, you will achieve your goals.

If you were good enough, you would have completed your journey and achieved your goals already.

If you’re reading this and thinking it sounds a bit harsh or negative, you may have missed the point of developing a healthy relationship with failure. Embrace the humility and strength that comes from acknowledging that you’re not yet where you want to be. This realisation grounds us and prepares us for further growth.

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