Why success starts with failure

You don’t expect failure to be an important theme for Harry Potter author JK Rowling.

Yet it was key in a speech to Harvard University students, in which she described her struggles prior to her well chronicled success.

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential,” the author said. “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

That such a successful figure views her achievements as almost impossible without her failures is eye-opening and encouraging. And she certainly isn’t the first person to try to make sense of failure.

This begs the question: Is there such a thing as failure or is it just a frame of mind?

“I believe it’s about mindset,” says Cathy Sexton of The Productivity Experts. “Some look at things that don’t work as failure, others think of them as stepping stones, others as experiments gone wrong, while for some it signifies time for a new direction. The important thing is that we don’t let them hold us back, crush our confidence or discourage us from moving forward.”

The important thing is that we don’t let them hold us back, crush our confidence or discourage us from moving forward. tweet

Planning to avoid

Of course, whether a project or action is deemed a failure is largely subjective, dependent upon an individual’s experience and perception of the situation, which can also greatly depend upon mindset, something that is not necessarily fixed and can change from event to event. We might view something as a failure one day, but if the same thing were to happen the next we might not.

“In most cases life does not go as planned,” says Cathy. “This is because we can only plan based on our past experiences and we have not experienced everything.”

Graham Allcott, the CEO of think productive, talks about ‘planning the unplanned’, or being prepared for and accepting of the unexpected: “Whether it’s making a habit of leaving some flexibility in your schedule to deal with the unexpected, or trying hard not to pin all your hopes on one particular promotion or opportunity, it’s much easier to respond when you have a mindset that life is a bumpy and wiggly ride, not a smooth, linear path.”

Cathy similarly believes that planning for things going right should also be mirrored by having a contingency plan for things going awry. “The important thing is to fail (if that’s the word you want to use) fast. The sooner you realise things aren’t working as planned, it’s time to re-evaluate the situation and decide whether to continue or take a detour.”

Staying motivated when things fall apart

Whether you view failure as real or perceived, we all go through undeniably bad times, which ultimately test our ability to maintain performance and in our belief that we deserve to continue.

“One of the most intimidating things in business and arguably in life is the feeling of impostor syndrome: the idea that everyone else is uniquely qualified for whatever they’re doing, whereas you, on the other hand, are a fool who doesn’t deserve to be there. ‘One day we’ll be found out!’, our brains tell us,” says Graham.

“You’ll be pleased to know that in my experience, this impostor syndrome mentality affects a lot of people. In fact, all of your heroes get nervous, everyone you admire has their moments of self-doubt and the world is a lot less hostile when you realise that everyone, on some level, has to adopt the mantra of ‘fake it till you make it’.”

Graham also highlights the pressure we put ourselves under by constantly focusing on the past and the future: ‘What did I fail to do? What’s coming up on the horizon that scares me?’. “A great way to give yourself more comfort and confidence is to keep a ‘have done list’ alongside your to-do list. This helps you to recognise your accomplishments, feel good about your capabilities, and ground yourself in the present moment, all of which builds confidence,” he says.

Recovering from a downer

Alongside ‘learning from your mistakes’, you also have the expression ‘there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback’, which Graham thinks is largely true. But using these experiences as a way to learn, test, improve and succeed next time is a great start”.

Time is also a great healer, says Graham. “Failures can bruise the ego, dent confidence and convince us to give up. But over time, they can restore fire in the belly, get you ready to have another go, and ultimately provide the motivation you need. So if you’re not feeling that way yet, be kind to yourself, give it some time, and things will be okay in the end.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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