How to learn from failure and become more resilient

Failure doesn't mean the end of the road. In fact, overcoming failure can help to set us up for future success, says Cathy Wallace

Illo Failure

Although I never daydreamed about meeting Prince Charming, I grew up assuming that I would one day be married and raise children.

Within my family divorce is highly contentious, and when I married my husband in 2010, I fully believed it would be for life. So, when our marriage came to an end last summer, embarking upon the process of divorce felt like a fundamental failure of my entire worldview, an admission of defeat and a source of intense shame.

It took a friend remarking what an incredibly positive thing her own divorce had been for me to realise this was only one side of the story. The other was having had the wisdom to acknowledge that, despite all possible attempts to save it, my marriage was no longer working. It was time to take stock, regroup and start again.

Outside of the relationship that had defined me for more than a decade was an opportunity to rediscover who I was, what I wanted from life and what my future might look like now I was free of the expectations that I had been unable to live up to.

More than seven months later, while the process remains ongoing, my future looks very different. It is a far more clearly defined expression of who I actually am, not what I was trying to be to fulfil certain expectations.

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What failure can teach us

All failures bring opportunities, most notably the opportunity to do something different. As Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, once said, “Every successful person has failed, numerous times. Most of them have failed a lot more often than we have. That’s why they’re successful now.”

When we fail, as we all do in our professional and personal lives, the risk is that we start to define ourselves by our failure.

Everywhere we look, other people’s achievements loom large, whether that’s the perfect happy families we seem to be surrounded by or the success stories detailed on social media. We assume that because we have failed, we are failures. The two are very different things.

“Failing to achieve a goal doesn’t make you a failure,” says Jasmijn Muller, 39, a management consultant and ultra endurance cyclist who has twice attempted to break the record to become the fastest woman to ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats (duracellbunnyonabike.com).

The effort involved in training, fundraising and preparation dominated her life until 2018, when her second attempt was derailed by a terrifying ‘speed wobble’ which left her fearing for her life, and mentally and physically unable to complete the challenge. “With a record attempt the clue really is in the name, failure is always an option,” she says. “Still, even when you are prepared, failure is a bitter pill to swallow.”

After an initial period of mourning, which she says involved “a mixture of tears” for herself and the people around her who had believed in her, Jasmijn used the experience as an opportunity to learn more about herself.

“For a number of years I was so fixated by my goal I didn’t appreciate all the other things I had achieved enough, and what actually makes me happy,” she says. “What I really want now is no longer what I wanted in 2013. I want to focus more on having adventures by bike, being part of a community and on giving back.”

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Jasmijn says she will not make another attempt at the record. “Life is too short to doggedly stick to a goal you can no longer give the required commitment to. I have new dreams to realise.” With a publicly expressed goal, whether that’s marriage or a world record attempt, part of the shame of failure is its visibility.

“Life can sometimes feel like a bit of a competition, especially when we have everybody else’s successes continually ashed in front of us on social media,” says Dr Josephine Perry, chartered psychologist at Performance in Mind (performanceinmind.co.uk).

“Accepting that we can’t win everything but that if we learn from it, we will still have a positive outcome and take something valuable from the effort and hard work we put into it, means we will continue to improve in our performance and grow as a person.”

It may be the case that, like Jasmijn, we have outgrown the goals we initially pursued. In other cases, life circumstances can change, leaving us questioning what’s really important.

Jo Norton set up her own small clothing business after the death of her father and while experiencing ongoing health problems. She struggled to sell her first collection and had to take stock.

“I realised that trying to keep up with the fashion calendar and invest even more in clothing production was impossible,” she says. Instead, she refocused and created Mille Saisons – collections of beautiful silk accessories, which proved a hit.

“I appreciate all I have learned, and how I have been able to go from having no hope for the future to creating my own.”

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How does failure lead to success?

Outside of relationships, work is often one of the most important ways in which we define ourselves. Jennifer Bailey was made redundant during a restructure just after she had returned to her job from maternity leave.

“The process of redundancy was incredibly stressful, and I felt like a total failure,” she says. “This was the first time in my career that I wasn’t rated highly by a manager. I thought I was good at my job, but redundancy can really take all the wind out of your sails.”

She used the opportunity to launch her own business and chose to solve a personal challenge that had long troubled her. “I was never able to find pretty shoes, because I suffered from bunions,” she says. “So I decided to make my own.”

Calla Shoes was born and today ships to women in more than 40 countries around the world. “I run my business around my family and the only person shaping my destiny is me.”

At other times failure can lead us to question why we were so focused on a goal in the first place. Grace Lambert-Smith used an unsuccessful attempt to complete endurance bike race the Transcontinental to reflect on the course of her life, and ended up moving to the Peak District where she met her boyfriend and set up her own copywriting business.

“I feel like I have a better balance in my life, and I am happy now,” she says. “I think failure has helped me go on to other things, and maybe if I’d finished the race I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’ll probably always have That Race at the back of my mind, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry now and great friends to fry them with.”

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In practical terms, how we cope with, and what we take from, failure is what can help us build success in the future. “Learning to live with disappointment is a skill in itself,” says Dr Josephine Perry.

“The stressors or pressures we have to deal with can feel tough at the time, but the coping strategies we develop to survive them are ones which will serve us well the next time we have to confront a similar situation. If we see each failure as an opportunity to build our coping mechanisms and become better equipped to deal with difficult things, then we know we have found a benefit out of what we endured.”

It's failure that gives you the proper perspective on success.
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Failure can be an opportunity to practice self-care and strengthen resilience through the knowledge that we can deal with whatever life brings. For me, the greatest lessons from my divorce are clarity on how I want my life to progress and an understanding of what led to the failure of my marriage, and how I can take this knowledge into future relationships.

Rather than repeating patterns, I have an opportunity to try something new and a second chance at success, which is the ultimate gift of failure.

Photos by Anthony Tran, Sam Manns, Jonas Verstuyft, Eye for Ebony and Vladimir Kudinov on Unsplash.

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