Helping students handle failure is part of my job as a speech coach and presentation trainer. Every day I get to observe how failure affects learning and development. People are often hindered more by their reaction to failure than by the failure itself. The momentary setback of “not getting it right” is nothing compared to the barrier created by frustration and discouragement.
Fearing failure creates paralysis. When you’re afraid you might fail, you literally get tense and don’t perform, mentally or physically, as well as you could. So resisting failure makes you more prone to failure.
The fear of failure causes distraction. Rock climber, Matthew Childs said, “Fear really sucks because it means you’re not focusing on what you’re doing; you’re focusing on the consequences of failing what you’re doing.” When you’re focused on avoiding the wrong result you become less focused on your technique. When your technique suffers, your performance suffers.
Trying to avoid failure promotes stagnation. Growth happens at your threshold, where things become difficult. If you insist on staying in your comfort zone where things are easy and you get it right every time, nothing will change. Woody Allen said, “If you’re not failing every now and again it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” If you want to get better at anything, you have to practice at a level where you’re failing once in awhile.
Finally, avoiding failure generates anxiety and robs you of joy. Activities that could be fascinating learning experiences become intimidating and burdensome. What could have been rewarding and engaging becomes just another source of stress. Your motivation suffers and there’s little incentive to practice.
Making mistakes is part of practice. It’s just a phase you have to work through. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning anything new. Getting uptight about mistakes actually makes it more difficult to experiment, find the solution and move on. You get stuck in the mistake.
How can you accept and recover from failure in a way that keeps you open to success? It helps to change the meaning of failure. Remember, failure is not you. Zig Ziglar said, “Failure is an event, not a person.” Failure is just part of what you’re doing, part of your process.
Next, failure is just information. Tony Robbins said, “There is no such thing as failure. There are only results.” The results show you what’s working and what needs more attention. Finally, failure is an opportunity. It’s a chance to begin again, with more awareness and information than you had before, and that’s an advantage.
I’d like to conclude with a quote from world-renowned performance psychologist, Dr. Jim Loehr. “If you see a failure as an opportunity to learn and get better, it will be. If you perceive it as a mortal blow, it will be. In that way, the power of the story is more important than the experience itself.
Learn to work with failure as part of your practice process. If you regard it as a setback, it will be a setback. If you regard it as more useful information, it can be a signpost pointing you toward some of your greatest breakthroughs.