Want to be Great at Something? You Need to Embrace Failure

March 15, 2017

Steven Spielberg failed at getting into USC's film school, and he was better because of it.

We’ve all heard the stories of great people who failed before they succeeded. Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team, J.K. Rowling was living on welfare before she wrote Harry Potter, Steven Spielberg was rejected from USC’s film school three times, etc.

The conventional wisdom is that these people overcame their failure to become who they are or are famous despite their failure. The exact opposite is true: these people are famous not despite of their failure, but because of it, and because they embraced it.

The reality is most of us are terrified of failure, or at least admitting to failure. Perfect example: think of the last time you were asked a question in a meeting you didn’t know. Did you tell the asker you didn’t know, or did you get defensive and cobble together some sort of generic answer?

I’m willing to bet the latter (I know I did).

Because we fear failure, we are afraid to try new things or push ourselves to go further. And that sabotages our chances of growing, and so we stick to what we know and stagnate.

Conversely, the world’s most successful people embrace what LinkedIn Learning Instructor Todd Dewett called the “success cycle”.

“The successful people in any domain all follow the same pattern: try, fail, learn, succeed,” Dewett said in his LinkedIn Learning course, Learning from Failure. “They don't feel shame because they produced work that was good, but not yet great just because they're at the bottom of a new learning curve.”  

That’s right, the second step in the success cycle is failure. Quite literally, that means without failure, there can’t be success. But the caveat is you need to get good at failing.

How to succeed at failing

In his course, Dewett essentially laid out a process for getting good at failure. Most of us are so eager to distance ourselves from our failures that we never actually learn anything from them, which hurts our growth.

So how do you get good at failing? Well, Dewett said it comes down to these three things:

  • First, own your mistake.

Most people don’t even get this far. When something fails, many people blame someone else or some factor outside their control, rather than admitting that there’s an area they need to improve in.

“You have to accept your imperfection,” Dewett said in his course. “This does not mean you're accepting mediocre performance or low standards for yourself. It simply means that you understand we're all flawed and make mistakes and that you wish to use this reality to push yourself, to motivate yourself to strive harder.”

Well said. The bigger point here is to realize that your abilities aren’t fixed. Just because you fail at something once, doesn’t mean you can’t be successful at it in the future. If you use the failure as a learning opportunity, you’ll improve and be more successful going forward.

So don’t take it personally or think you’re stupid if you fail. You are on your way to succeeding, you just need to take the next step.

  • Determine what went wrong and how to fix it.

Once you own your mistake, it’s time to learn how to fix it. Sometimes, that’s really obvious, and the way to fix it is relatively clear.

But not usually. If you are unsure how to fix the mistake, there’s a pretty simple solution: ask other people you respect how they would fix it. People who fail are often reluctant to take this step because it’s admitting to failure, but the other person won’t see it that way. Instead, they’ll see it as a sign of someone committed to learning, and who respects their opinion.

Dewett also highlighted checking your assumptions when you fail. Oftentimes, you failed because you assumed something that wasn’t true.

For example, are you assuming something is cost prohibitive, but yet you haven’t really examined how to pay for it? Are you assuming a person won’t help, but yet you’ve never asked them?

Oftentimes, you find one of the reasons you failed is because you were wrong about something that you didn’t know you were wrong about it. So question what you think is true, particularly when you fail.

  • Over time, adopt a learning mentality.

If you do the first two steps perfectly, you’ll still have an aversion to failing, but it’ll lessen some. The more you fail and follow this process, the less aversion to failing you’ll have, to the point that’ll you’ll eventually stop fearing failure entirely.

That’s a good sign, as it means you’ve fully embraced the success cycle of try, fail, learn, succeed. After awhile, you’ll accept that failing is just a part of learning, and you’ll get good at determining exactly why something failed and what you need to improve. From an organizational perspective, it’s critical to instill and encourage this culture of learning, empowering more people to fail without fear.

The takeaway

In his course, Dewett described this person. Can you guess who he is?

“He failed in business in '31, ran for the state legislature and lost in '32, tried business again in '33 and failed again,” Dewett said. “His sweetheart died in '35. He suffered a nervous breakdown in '36. He was defeated for a run at Congress in '43, defeated again for Congress in '48, defeated when he ran for the Senate in '55, defeated for the Vice Presidency of the United States in '56, ran for the Senate again in '58 and lost again.”

But you know what happened in 1860? He was voted president of the United States, and today Abraham Lincoln is regarded as arguably the greatest president in American history.

Could Lincoln have unified the country, freed the slaves and earned a spot on the five-dollar bill if he hadn’t failed so many times? No. Because without all those failures, and the learnings he ascertained from them, he wouldn’t have become the person he became.

So next time you fail, don’t crawl up into the proverbial shell and lose confidence. Just tell yourself you’re on a path to becoming the next Lincoln, and see what you can learn from it.

Want to get better at failing? Watch Todd Dewett's full course, Learning from Failure.