3 Steps to Be Better at Failure

Failure is hard to do well.

If you're a rookie, your failures and screw-ups will make one hell of a mess, and will likely make you feel like something you want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

A misstep here will not only leave you feeling crappy, but will have you believe that you failed because you're not good enough. Your failure was inevitable, simply because of who you are.

Making failure personal is how you fail at failure, and it's surprisingly easy to do, thanks to how your brain is wired up.

  • At the first sign of failure the levels of dopamine in your brain (the neurotransmitter that helps control the brains' reward and pleasure centres ) drops sharply. It's this drop of dopamine that hurts, and studies have shown that a sharp drop of dopamine can equate to physical pain.
  • Your amygdala kicks in, giving you a strong emotional response that makes you want to get the hell outta there. This is the primal, fight/flight part of your brain that screams at you and drowns out most everything else.
  • The dip in dopamine and activity in your amygdala combine and make it all but impossible for your prefrontal cortex to get a look in. This is where you do your conscious, deliberate thinking, but in the face of failure you just can't think clearly.
  • In an effort to help you navigate the failure, your brain will look for things that have helped you most effectively before. It looks for a pattern of behaviour that it believes will do one of these things:

    a. Minimise danger. Rather than run the risk of making things worse or risk being judged or blamed or rejected, your brains primary motivation is to minimise danger and keep you safe. Typically, this involves shrinking down in an effort to disappear.

    b. Increase certainty. You scramble to find individual details that can be controlled, influenced or changed, simply because these are elements that might increase certainty of what happens next and will minimise the risk of something bad or unexpected happening again.

    c. Maximise reward. You look for something to counter to "bad things", which might include numbing behaviours like alcohol or comfort eating, stumbling into self-righteousness (it was Larry's fault, or the world is against me), or finding any detail that you can use to make you right, even if you're not happy.

Holy mother of a nutcracker.

Failure is hard.

All of this stuff in your brain happens in a slim sliver of time, without you even knowing, and can lead to a downward spiral of thinking that just takes you deeper and deeper into the mire.

But look, with the simple fact that screwing up and failing are things that WILL HAPPEN, it makes inordinate sense for you to be better at failure.

3 steps to be better at failure...

1

Recognise

The moments after a screw-up or failure are pivotal, which is why you need to pay attention and recognise what's happening..


When you feel that plunging feeling in your body (because failure often gives you a physiological response), pay attention and recognise it. When you feel your thoughts spinning, see that happening and know this is your "default" programming. And when you feel like running, feel scared, or feel not good enough, recognise how these are just thoughts bubbling away in an effort to make sense of things.


Gently, curiously noticing what's happening in your head affords you the opportunity to say, "Oh hey, this is that failure thing. My brain is scrambling right now to keep me safe. I get what's happening here."


Recognise what's happening, and don't judge it for being there. This is about paying attention and noticing, not judging and blaming and beating yourself up.


Why the focus on paying attention? Because it's the only way to crack the window an inch, to allow in some air. Because otherwise your brain will do its thing and lead you down those well-travelled roads, roads that don't serve you well.


And most importantly, it's how you get to see what's happening without defining yourself by it.

2

REMEMBER

These thoughts, these feelings, aren't you.


They're just parts of your experience in the moments after failure, and are no more indicative of your capability, possibility or identity than my pinkie finger is indicative of my ability to play lead violin in the London Philharmonic.


Remember how far you've come. All that stuff you've done, achieved, tried, learned, let go of and grown into. Remember what matters to you. All that stuff that resonates, that fuels you, that means something to you. And remember how much you can still do. All the ways you can grow, all the ways you can contribute, all the things you can create and all the fun you can have.


Those moments after failure are magnetic and compelling, but remembering who you are and what you can do is everything.

3

Respond

You've paid attentioned to what's happening, and you've remember who you are and what matters. Now comes the gold.


Responding in a way that makes sense.


Given everything that matters to you, what's a way you can respond to this failure? Given what you're like when you're at your best (alive, flowing, firing on all cylinders), what's a way you can respond? Given the expanse of your experience and capability, what's a way you can respond?


A response might be as simple as saying, "Huh, so that happened," and moving on. A response might be looking at what you can do differently next time. A response might be looking for help or support to make things easier. A response might be to say "Okay, I din't die, I can do this." Or a response might be to look for what you can learn and how you can grow.


You always get to choose your response.


And you can slap me 11 ways 'til Sunday if that's not freaking brilliant.

You're more than any failure...

Feel free to feel crappy if something goes wrong or blows up in your face. You're allowed to feel down and you're allowed to be low. Sometimes, life is like that.

But this doesn't need to define you. Failure isn't who you are, it's just a thing that happened that you'd rather hadn't.

You can feel bad about a failure, and at the same time have a sense of confidence in who you are and your worth.

That's the gold. A core of confidence that's there when you need it the most. A core of confidence you can lean into for reassurance. And a core of confidence that never diminishes your worth or value because of a pesky failure.

Doesn't that sound worthwhile?

What's your experience of failure, and picking yourself back up again? Let me know in the comments.

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  • Hi Steve

    For me … it’s all in the details … and I really like the details of how the brain works in this kind of crisis situation. And, yes, almost any experience can be good or bad depending on our attitude and response. Crap happens to all of us and I’ve tried for a long time to avoid asking “why me” and ask “what can I learn from this”. The words we choose feed into whether it’s positive or negative as well … so reprogramming myself to use positive phrases (glad I could help) rather than negative ones (no problem) has made a difference too.

    • That “Why me” thinking leads to “I deserve better”, and that’s a nasty place to spend time in. I really like your shift to “glad I could help” too – I’ve seem to have been using “you’re welcome” a lot more recently because it just seemed to fit better, so thanks for pointing out a distinction I wasn’t really aware of!

  • Steve, I think you detail both the process and the mastering of the art of screwing up in a wonderful way. I think I will start quoting you each time I hear someone talking bout their mistakes.
    Thank you for such a wonderful article.

    • We all screw up, so I thought it was about time we got better at it. There’s a whole book in here Alejandro but I’m glad it gave you the eseentials!

        • Glad you made an exception for me! I don’t want to write the same old stuff as everybody else – I really want every article to offer something valuable, insightful and useful – everything here should contribute towards putting your dent in the universe…

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