Making Sense of Failure

failure As we all wander through this life, we will inevitably fail at something. Some people will fail at school or relationships while others will fail in jobs or careers. It’s impossible to know where you will fail until it happens. The important part is not the failure itself, but how you make sense of it afterward.

Recently, I was reading The Happiness Hypothesis and ran across a startling study by Jamie Pennebaker which demonstrated that people who can make sense of failure or trauma in their life receive actual health benefits versus those who cannot derive any meaning from it:

Pennebaker discovered that it’s not about [blowing off] steam; it’s about sense making.  The people in his studies who used their writing time to vent got no benefit. The people who showed deep insight into the causes and consequences of the event on their first day of writing got no benefit, either: They had already made sense of things. It was the people who made progress across the four days, who showed increasing insight; they were the ones whose health improved over the next year. In later studies, Pennebaker asked people to  dance or sing to express their emotions, but these emotionally expressive  activities gave no health benefit. You have to use words, and the words have to help you create a meaningful story.

In other words, when a trauma or failure occurs, you need to make sense of it afterward in order to move beyond it and grow from it. In fact, there are many stories of failures that helped lead to eventual success.

In my own life, I failed stupendously in my first small business start-up. I and some fellow partners invested a lot of time and money over the span of many years in creating an IT product. After all that work, we finally ran out of cash and steam without ever even bringing the product to market. We got zero sales and nothing but losses on our tax returns.

That said, I learned a tremendous amount from that experience about what is important when running a small IT business: cash is king, get the product to market ASAP, and don’t try to include everything in the first release. I was able to apply the principles I learned from that first business to create a highly successful second business. In fact, INC magazine says that one of the biggest predictors of a business owner’s success is at least one failed business in the past.

Often times the key to succeeding is picking yourself back up one more time. People succeed because they’re willing to do the hard things that others won’t do. Persistence through failure and adversity often makes the difference between an eventual success or complete failure.

Just look at history. By any objective measure, George Washington was losing the Revolutionary War for the first few years. The same can be said of Lincoln and the Civil War. The key is that they pushed passed these failures, learned from them and eventually succeeded.

Recently, during last year’s Harvard commencement speech, JK Rowling discussed her failures:

So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

But as we all know this story has a happy ending. Rowling learned an important lesson from her failures:

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. 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. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

So the next time you encounter a failure of some kind in your life, remember that you’ve only failed like many great people have, and after learning from it success might be just around the corner…

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. -Thomas Edison

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

One thought on “Making Sense of Failure

  1. You’ve convinced me to be more intentional about failing. I need to learn to fail onto a trampoline so to speak, and be able to “move beyond it.”

    A “career ender” failure is probably not the best way to fail.

    When Walter Mondale got “Mondaled” in 1984 that was more of a “career ender”. When Michael Jordan “failed” in baseball, he was really thinking about his comeback to basketball…

Comments are closed.