This is the sixth in our series of articles about The 8 Keys of Excellence, which serve as a foundation for our leading residential teen summer camp, SuperCamp. See our Intro article as well as links to previous Key articles here: The 8 Keys of Excellence: Principles to Live By.
Learn from mistakes! View failures as feedback that provides you with the information you need to learn, grow, and succeed.
When we live the Key of Failure Leads to Success we see failures as feedback. We analyze them for everything we can learn from them, including what went wrong and what went right, and then we make whatever changes are needed to be more successful—and we try again!
To live this Key successfully we may need to change the way we think about failure. Rather than viewing failure in a negative way where we put ourselves down and think WE are a failure, we need to think of failure as a valuable learning experience. When we make an effort to learn from our mistakes rather than sending ourselves negative messages, we are on the path to success.
Think about how you think about “failure”
If I say the word failure, what emotions does it bring to mind for you? Guilt? Embarrassment? Inadequacy? Not very positive thoughts. When we hear the word “failure” we have all sorts of associations with the word, and most of them are negative. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because whenever an outcome does not match our positive expectation, we label it a failure. And it happens all the time. We want an “A” but we get a “C” . . . we want to win but we come in second . . . we want a “yes” but we get a “no”—we label them all FAILURE!
When we fail, we automatically send ourselves negative messages. We discourage ourselves from trying again because if we try again we risk another failure. It’s true that when we give up trying, we don’t have to face the possibility of failure. But it’s also true that we’ll have close to zero chance of achieving success. In order to really succeed, we’ve got to be willing to fall on our face now and then—and get up and try again!
We didn’t start out being afraid of failing or hating to fail. When we were young, failure didn’t weigh us down with emotional sludge. When we fell (failed) as a toddler learning to walk, we simply stood up and tried again. The same with learning to ride a bike. But somewhere during our childhood we learned that trying and not succeeding was bad. That turned into trying was bad, and then that we were bad.
Our failures by themselves are not so terrible, for the most part. It’s how we think about them that gives them the power to hold us back.
When we fail, we experience two types of consequences: external and internal. The external consequences are easy to see—they’re about what happens in the world around us as a result of our failure. The internal consequences are what happens inside us—the emotional impact of our failure. The math exam we botched? The external consequences were a bad grade and maybe a stern lecture from our parents. The internal consequences were those persistent little voices that whispered You’re no good at math. You’re too stupid to do this. The bad grade and the lecture from our parents came and went—the little voices stayed.
It’s not the external result of our failure that makes it a negative experience. It’s how we think about it. The external consequences of a single failure are usually small—often even insignificant. But sometimes we make the internal consequences way bigger than reality would suggest!
Let’s look at some consequences of failure—external and internal:
External Consequences Internal Consequences
Failed an exam I’m too stupid to get into college.
Lost the karate tournament I’ll never be any good at martial arts.
Missed an assignment deadline I’m so disorganized.
Forgot about a plan with a friend I have such a pathetic memory.
Cheated on a diet I have no willpower.
See how the way we think about failures can make them a lot bigger than the actual failure warrants? We don’t actually have to listen to those internal voices. If we view failure as the valuable feedback that it is, we can learn from it, try again and succeed! If we think about why we might have failed that exam, it’s highly likely we’ll learn what went wrong, apply it to our next exam, and pass! Much better than condemning ourselves as stupid, and probably failing the next exam! What about the friend we let down? Probably we would have apologized and made another plan, though we might still keep thinking about our pathetic memory. Probably best to come up with a reminder system, let go of labeling ourselves as having a pathetic memory, and move on.
As you consider these examples, as well as some more personal situations that may come to mind, it should be clear that your best option is to stop listening to those internal voices. Whatever it is, do your best to learn from your mistake and let it go! If we’re going to harness the power that lies within our failures, we’ll have to change the way we think about them, and learn to see them for the gifts they are.
Failure really does lead to success
Failure is not just one possible path, it’s practically the only path to success. It’s necessary. It’s required. You can’t succeed without learning. And in order to learn, you have to move out of your comfort zone, accept the possibility of failure, and try new things. What is learning if not trying new things? You can’t succeed if you can’t grow. You can’t grow if you can’t learn. You can’t learn if you don’t try new things— and occasionally fail.
It’s also wise to remember as you embrace this Key of Failure Leads to Success that all new things you try will not immediately pay off. You’ll experience a few failures, even after you’ve learned from a failure and tried again with new insight. Failure Leads to Success is not about one failure and then instant success. It’s about failing as many times as you need to, learning from each failure, and finally achieving success! And what a wonderful feeling that is—you tried, you failed, you learned, you tried again (and maybe again), and you won!
The actual experience of failing is the best way to learn because it tells you what to do—and what not to do—next time. When you analyze your failures and figure out where you went wrong, you’re teaching yourself, literally by trial and error, how to go right.
So, treat your failures as gifts. Whenever you fail, the universe has just handed you a piece of wisdom. Don’t let it go to waste. Mine it for all it’s worth. Ask yourself:
- What happened?
- What did I learn? What went right? What went wrong?
- What will I do differently next time?
The only time you’ve really failed is when you fail to learn from your mistakes.
Think in ink
If we always think of failure as valuable feedback, we’re well on our way to achieving our goals. Our success in all areas of our lives does not depend on whether or not we have failures along the way—for we will always have failures—it’s how we respond to our failures that leads to our success.
Think about how failure shows up in your life and write your thoughts about the following questions.
- What is something I have failed at in the past?
- Did I think about it and try to learn from my failure? Did I try again? What was the outcome?
- If I didn’t learn from that failure, what might I have learned if I had viewed it as valuable feedback and given it the thought it deserved?
- Do I have negative thoughts about failure? Do I put myself down when something doesn’t go right? Do I think I am a failure?
- Or do I view failure as a positive learning experience?
- If I view failure as valuable feedback rather than something negative to be avoided, how will that help me grow and succeed?
- Knowing that failure is not something to fear, what is something new I’d like to try?
- What can I do every day to be sure I always learn from my mistakes?
“Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
About the Contributor: Since 1982, SUPERCAMP, Monthly Mentor, has inspired and empowered thousands of teens to feel confident and motivated, and to excel in school and beyond. SuperCamp offers six-, seven-, and ten-day residential programs for students in middle school, high school, and first-year college. Living on a college campus is a great experience for teens and most of our grads go directly to a four-year college after high school. As teens from around the world gather at SuperCamp, they are inspired to believe in themselves and their ability to achieve, and they acquire learning and life skills that empower them to thrive in all areas of their life. Read More…
(See what some recent grads have to say about SuperCamp at www.supercamp.com/student-testimonials.)