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The Fear of Failure: What We Learn When We Reflect on Our Failures

When Buff Donovan’s daughter was 8, she made her mother a birthday cake. When the baking time ended and the cake came out of the oven, it was perfectly brown and miserably flat, thanks to the absence of baking soda.

Her daughter was upset but Donovan was not: It was, she wisely counseled, a chance to learn how cakes rise – and the cake was a perfectly good “flan.”

Persistence – the ability to adapt and change – builds wisdom and self-esteem. Those are the positive lessons of failure. But those who are unable to push through defeat when they’re young may encounter even bigger stumbling blocks later in life.

Why we fail

Famous stories abound of luminaries who survived failures both big and small. Bob Dylan may have won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, but only after losing a talent show in high school – to a tap dancing act. Michael Jordan, perhaps the finest basketball player in history, didn’t make his high school’s varsity team during his sophomore-year tryout. Perhaps most famously, Thomas Edison oversaw thousands of failed tries before stumbling on a solution for light bulb filaments. Each of these experiences shows how success is built on a foundation of failures.

From a very young age, in fact, we’re failing – we just don’t think of it that way. Take walking: A baby doesn’t master that skill quickly. He or she scoots and crawls, building muscle strength and agility, taking about 1,000 hours just to learn to put two steps together. “Every time you start something new you’re going to make mistakes, and you are, hopefully, going to learn how to correct them,” says Donovan, a licensed social worker and HAP’s director of Coordinated Behavior Health Management. “When people talk about failure, it’s just an opportunity to learn.”

That’s true for school grades and test scores. Students, parents and teachers often view these as measures of success or failure, but there are other skills that help build successful people. “A lot of times social skills, not just book work, can help ensure quality of life,” says Donovan. “If someone gets a bad grade on a test, it’s a chance to talk about what he or she did learn, and what they would do differently.”

Should failure be avoided?

Ralph Heath, author of "Celebrating Failure," once ran a thriving advertising agency in Wisconsin; he loved taking clients from obscurity to wide notice. But that success, and his clients’ upward paths, provided the source of his biggest failures. “We’d take a client to such a high spot that they’d think they needed a bigger agency,” says Heath.

One time, a client asked him along on a meeting – with a new agency. Heath nonetheless always pushed himself to be open to the lessons gleaned from those failures. “I learned to stay in touch with the client. I learned to say ‘I understand.’ I made note of what I did wrong,” Heath says. “It taught me to listen more intently.”

Sometimes, Heath found, he couldn’t avoid failure; it’s part of all business. But young people may believe that enough work, planning and studying will guard against bad grades or rejection letters. They may also, in the process, be increasing their anxiety: According to the National College Health Assessment, almost half of U.S. college students experience overwhelming anxiety, and 8 percent of U.S. teens have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. By avoiding failure at all costs, young people may also lose the chance to build coping skills.

Stumbles, says Heath, teach us, a lesson he put to good use in his business life. “I was always pushing and trying new things and often failing, but that’s when you discover new things,” he says. “People don’t like to talk about failure, but we’d learn why we lost an account and we’d share it with the team so everyone could learn from it. There’s a stigma with failure that you did something wrong, when in fact, you were trying something great and it didn’t work out.”

Rating failure

Of course, not all failure is the same; the cake-turned-flan didn’t have the same wide-ranging results as did Heath’s loss of a client. “Interventions are different depending on the mistake and the person,” says Donovan. “In school, for example, not everyone learns the same way. You have to remember that when you go into the workforce – some people are better at process, some are better at engaging team members, some are better at working at a computer. You have to play to your strengths and work at your challenges.”

And no matter the failure, says Donovan, remember the willingness to fail is a positive character trait, too. “We need to get away from identifying failure as ‘All hope is gone,’” she says. “Take stock, grieve, learn, and try again.”

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To talk to a counselor about failure or any other issue, contact our Coordinated Behavioral Health Management department at (800) 444-5755.

Categories: Get Healthy