They write songs, books, inspirational quotes, and movies about it, but they always talk about failure in the past tense, like it's somehow okay to discuss once we have transcended, made meaning, and are back on the come up. News flash—failure sucks. When you feel like you have failed in life, it can be difficult to identify the romantic, poetic, or meaningful messages we are intended to learn, mostly because we are too angry or broken-hearted to look for them.
Feeling like a failure in life is energy-consuming and takes many forms. The only guarantee in life is that we will, in fact, fail. We will do so repeatedly, and when failures compound, it can feel like the earth is crumbling beneath our feet.
Here are some ways how failure can look and feel like.
Failure can look like:
Going bankrupt or experiencing financial hardship
Missing a promotion
Breaking a diet
Going through a divorce, sometimes more than once
Standing by when you wanted to stand up
Failing to complete a major goal or just your daily task list
Doing everything right and still losing where it seems to count.
Something you poured time into coming out all wrong (IKEA fail, anyone?)
Your twenties (just kidding—well, kind of)
Failure can feel like:
Deflation (lots of "d" words, I know)
On the other hand, failure can also feel like:
So, what exactly are the lessons that happen in between that help us transcend from the depths of despair to emboldened by wisdom? Turns out, they are there if we are willing to see them.
Here are 10 critical lessons to learn when you feel like you've failed in life.
1. There Is Merit in Trying
If you have failed, the underlying truth is that you must have tried to be in this position. The fear of failure runs so deep that many people choose not to try just to avoid the possibility of failing.
In a survey by Linkagoal, fear of failure plagued 31% of 1,083 adult respondents—a larger percentage than those who feared spiders (30%), being home alone (9%), or even the paranormal (15%).((Los Angeles Times: We’re far more afraid of failure than ghosts: Here’s how to stare it down))
If you have found yourself feeling like a failure, then it means you summoned the courage to do something hard. Remember that same courage hasn’t disappeared just because it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped. Celebrate your willingness to try and note that this is the same spirit that will fuel you as you move forward and try again or try something new.
2. Failure Humbles Us if We Don’t Give It Too Much Power
If we give our failures too much credit, we memorialize them as predictors of future inevitable failures. It's as if by failing at something in life, you can never succeed in that area again. We catastrophize our failure, widen its scope, and turn a single moment in time into a self-fulfilling prophesy we are destined to replay.
But we don’t have to. When we acknowledge our failure for exactly what it is—no more, no less—we allow it to humble us. We take it in and name what has happened, narrate its impact, and keep it just like that. We see it as data and acknowledge that it has little to do with whether or not we will fail or succeed in the future.
3. The Mental Gymnastics of "What if" Are Useless—Repurpose the Time
What's done is done. Reliving our failure moment serves nobody. "Would’ve's", "could’ve's", and "should’ve's" rush through our minds as we consider all of the ways things could have turned out differently, if only. But the truth is that the time we spend in this place of unnecessary replay could be better spent working to take 100% ownership of the parts we had control over that led to the failure.
This is our chance to spend time in reflection and identify the key factors with utmost honesty. Many of us seek the opportunity to let ourselves off the hook when failure hurts too much. Rather than admit to the thing that we could have changed, we look for external sources to blame or distort the memory with excuses.
Not every failure is within our full control, but there are often pieces we can be accountable to, learn from, and show up better for in the future. It is better that you "focus solely on those aspects that are in your control. Feeling in control is a literal antidote to feelings of helplessness and demoralization that will motivate you to try again, minimize your chances of another failure, and increase your likelihood of success.”((Psychology Today: 10 Surprising Facts About Failure))
4. Accountability Cannot Be Shared
Martyrdom is not the goal, and we want to avoid blame. Accountability, however, is important. We want to own up to the pieces of error we recognize through self-reflection and express 100% accountability in conversation with external parties who were impacted by our failures.
Responsibility can be shared and the other party may have some part to play, but to make meaning of our failures, we should use this opportunity to state our impact regardless of our intent. The point is to eliminate excuses, name what occurred, and state what comes next, even if there is nobody else involved.
For example, when you feel like you failed in life for being passed over for a promotion in your career, it may not call for a conversation with your boss, but you can reflect if there is accountability to be taken for the times you could have been more intentional toward your work and set a goal for how you might focus harder next quarter and make a point to self-advocate more publicly.
Conversely, if the failure is a break-up and self-reflection surfaces ways you could have been more communicative or transparent during the relationship, you can make a point to admit that to the affected party and note that this is something you plan to work on before pursuing your next relationship.
5. The Process of Elimination Applies
Think about the last time you tackled a multiple choice question on an exam. You had to use logic to rule the choices down to the most likely possibilities, and in the absence of certainty, you probably took an educated guess.
Life offers us similar opportunities all the time, and we can see failure as helping us to widdle down closer and closer to the “right answer.” All the ways that something shouldn’t go get us closer to knowing the way how it should. Failure in life serves us in this way. When we can process our failures productively, extract the information they provide, and proceed with insight, we get closer to the outcomes we hope to find.
6. Subpar Stats Still Belong to Winners
Baseball players who have a batting average of 300 or more are usually considered all-stars or potential hall of farmers. What this means though is that if you have a batting average of 300, you are essentially failing 70% of the time.((MLB News: These are MLB's unluckiest hitters))
Now, that doesn’t sound as impressive does it? But the reality is that we fail more times than we succeed over the course of our lives. It's time to put things in perspective and reflect on your failures.
7. You Find Out What You Are Made Of
Failure isn’t for the faint of heart. When you fail, I mean really fail in life, it hurts—a lot. It is no easy feat to overcome the hardship that comes with failing in life big time. Still, there is something we prove to ourselves when we choose to get back out there and give it another go.
Trusting after having your heart broken, applying for a promotion after being passed over before, asking the next person out on a date after being ghosted—the metaphorical step we take to “get back on the horse” proves to us that we are more resilient than we realized. We have tried and failed before, so we can try and fail again.
When we learn to rebound, we learn just what we are capable of.+
“The experience of going out of your comfort zone is not a pleasant one, But the confidence, the feeling of relief—we call it ‘excitation transfer’—are very intense. That sense of mastery, ‘Wow, look what I just did,’ is a learning experience. The fear itself is not pleasant, but people never remember it. What they remember is that positive high.”((Los Angeles Times: We’re far more afraid of failure than ghosts: Here’s how to stare it down))
When we muscle through failure in the direction of trying again, we can master the art of failing forward.
Little kids learning to walk fall to the ground hundreds of times, but they don’t just decide to crawl for life. They keep on standing. When we tap into that same child-like comfort with failure, we can approach life more light-heartedly and push back on all of the negative self-talk we learn as we grow. “If I fail people will judge me,” If I try and everyone sees me fail I will lose their respect.” Who cares? Living life is hard.
8. It’s All in the Framing
You have to decide how you want to think and talk about your failures moving forward. What you choose to mention says a lot about what the failure meant for you. If you are dwelling on and talking about all of the painful residuals of the failure, you perpetuate life’s greatest problems.
Like Yoda said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” When you talk about the learning, you perpetuate the growth the world aches to see.
9. Sharing Is Caring
Repurpose your learning and save someone else the trouble, I have always questioned the saying that every generation must learn for themselves that the iron is hot—I call bull! Some folks may heed the warning.
Granted, failure finds us all, and there are some lessons we have to learn ourselves, but it never hurts to share your story. Be open, transparent, and bold in the way that you offer your insights to the world. Whether it is in the context of a mentorship relationship, publicly sharing in your blog, or snippets you share when you sit on a panel one day, never underestimate the impact you can have by sharing the "aha!"s that came from your failures. People will appreciate your humility and feel like they, too, have permission to fail.
10. It’s Okay to Let It Go (You Know, Like What Elsa Said?)
If you are notoriously hard on yourself, you may feel compelled to hold onto failure, but once the reflection, accountability, and learning have occurred, the failure has served its purpose. Let it go, and free up space to take your next steps. Besides, you have plenty more failures left in you!
Life is really just one great big chance to get really good at failing. There are so many opportunities to muck it up when you feel like you failed in life, but there are far more than 10 big lessons to learn.
See each day as a new shot at courage—a new day to practice learning from mistakes and applying that learning to the next big risk. It is okay to fail in life because that does not mean that you fail for life. Nobody has ever succeeded without first failing in some way.
Whether you have been failing full throttle or tentative to avoid missteps, let today be the first of many days you fail with full confidence that there is purpose in everything you do.
Read These If You Feel Like a Failure
6 Reasons It’s Okay To Fail
10 Famous Failures to Success Stories That Will Inspire You to Carry On
30 Powerful Success and Failure Quotes That Will Lead You to Success