The Importance of Failure and Learning to Embrace Adversity

The Importance of Failure and Learning to Embrace Adversity

It’s strange how one of the most powerful life lessons is so steeped in pejorative language. To fail: an experience that is vital for growing and learning but which we are educated to believe is something to be ashamed of. We grow up with the idea that failure is the opposite of success.

Odd really when you watch a parent introduce a child to something new, let’s say, learning to catch a ball or writing their name. When it doesn’t happen the first time, parents are usually encouraging with reassurances of “Good try, don’t worry it will come with practice” or “anything important takes time and effort”. The parent is explaining that failure is just one step on the path to achieving something. It’s a belief that is totally aligned with science too; scientists know that an experiment is never truly a failure as such, rather, it’s a lesson, an important part of the whole journey.

There are hundreds of examples I could give you, from JK Rowling being depressed and penniless before penning the novels that would make her one of the world’s richest authors, Richard Branson “losing count” of the Virgin companies that have gone bust or Churchill being defeated at every election to public office before becoming one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers. There’s also that powerful Nike ad featuring Michael Jordan dubbed “the greatest basketball player of all time” which sums it up perfectly.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 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.

So it’s strange that so many of us, once we become adults see failure not as a lesson but as a mistake – something to make you feel you aren’t good enough. Too old? Too out of date? A friend recently told me that she used to avoid situations where she might be regarded as a failure because she didn’t want to be made to feel stupid. Then she noticed that anyone who was doing anything interesting or living a very full life didn’t really give a fig about how failure made them feel.

There’s been much in the press recently about how middle class parents are rearing a generation of non-copers. “How to Raise an Adult” by the American academic and mother of two, Julie Lythcott Haims argues that the more involved the parent, the less able the child is at standing on its own two feet.

“Mistakes” she explains, “are your child’s greatest teacher so embrace them when they happen, whether it’s coming last in something, being dropped from a team or flunking an exam. Instead of dreading failures, see them as a chance to get ready for adulthood.”

Failing also encourages us to be emotionally tougher, or that modish buzzword, it teaches us to be “resilient”. A mother of one 11 year old was told by her teacher that her daughter needed to learn to be more resilient. But how do you create the “adversity” or a “ stressful situation “ from which to learn from?

It’s tricky, but every day, try doing a couple of things that are a little bit out of your comfort zone. Being out of your comfort zone (and it doesn’t have to be that far out at the beginning) will help you develop both your confidence and the tool box of tricks required to tackle life’s hurdles.

It’s something I tried when I resigned from my job after 14 years at the Times earlier this year to try my hand as a freelance writer and look into setting up an online business. Yes there have been dog days but on the whole it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience: I’ve learnt an enormous amount about myself but it has also given me the chance to spread my wings a bit, write for a variety of publications or platforms (including this one) that I wouldn’t have done otherwise and discover new ventures. It has also encouraged me to become better at stepping out of my comfort zone, something that is very easy to remain in when you’ve been in the same job for a very long time.

This week I interviewed a French fashion designer about his Parisian apartment for the Saturday Times magazine. I was told beforehand that he preferred to conduct the interview in French. I read languages at university and I’ve always prided myself on my ability to more than get by, but an hour long interview? In French?

Okay, so it wasn’t perfect. I realised half way through that my French (learnt as a university student) was better equipped to answering questions than it was to being interrogative. But the experience has bolsterd my resolve to brush up on my language skills instead of leaving me cringing when I listened back to the tape and clocked my  failure to use the subjunctive.

According to Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, the author of Positivity, resilient people are characterised by an ability to experience both negative and positive emotions even in difficult or painful situations. “ They mourn losses and endure frustrations, but they also find redeeming potential or value in most challenges. They tend to find some silver lining in even the worst of circumstances.

She notes that this is different than succumbing to a Pollyanna-ish denial. “The resilient person isn’t papering over the negative emotions, but instead letting them sit side by side with other feelings. So at the same time they’re feeling ‘I’m sad about that,’ they’re also prone to thinking, ‘but I’m grateful about this.’” What if this doesn’t come that naturally to you?

Fredrickson believes we can change that. The key is to avoid attaching too much importance to the negative. “For instance: I’ll never succeed in my career. Ask yourself, ‘What’s the evidence that I’ll never succeed?’ You might say, ‘Well, there’s this history of success and this history of failure.’ How does that add up to never? It’s a matter of getting really literal about the kinds of blanket statements we have in our self-talk.”

So what have I learnt recently? That it pays to surround yourself with positive people and ignore the naysayers. We all know a Moaning Minnie but resilient people are adept at seeing things from another person’s point of view. It helps in life to look beyond yourself and your set of problems…believe me, it’s an eye opener to seeing quite how self-absorbed most people are.

We would all benefit from a “live to learn” mantra. That is, looking at pain as an opportunity to learn and problem solve rather than something we run away from. When adversity strikes, gratitude for the things that are going right in our lives, helps put any tragedy in perspective. And finally, what everyone agrees on, is that we shouldn’t forget to laugh.


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