COMMENTARY: Embracing failures can help us move forward
A recent invitation to participate in a roundtable discussion at the Fall Undergraduate Conference at my alma mater, Rutgers University, gave me an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of failure.
I see failure as an integral part of my constant growth. We, as human beings, start life with an incredible capacity to learn. We have a marvelous ability to grow and develop continually in many domains including social, emotional and cognitive domains among others. This constant motion of becoming and learning continues well into adolescence and adulthood, as long as we allow ourselves to learn.
We start our journey as fragile creatures and are very dependent on others. As years go by, we become independent. This independence is achieved through our constant ability to overcome failure, as we learn to walk, talk, feed ourselves, make friends and much more, eventually becoming independent adults. I have yet to find a baby who falls down and does not stand up to try again. Indeed, babies in their quest of learning to walk become paragons of perseverance, getting up every time they fall down. Looking at babies, we realize that they enjoy the process of getting up and falling down to eventually walk.
The problem becomes that somewhere along the way, we stop seeing our challenges as a learning process. When that happens, failure can become paralyzing. A change of perception in the way we interpret failure stands as the first line of defense against the paralyzing effects of fearing failure. When we see failure as a learning process, we open the possibility to learn from past experiences and move on with additional expertise around a certain situation. In other words, taking the experience as preliminary training to get ready for the next phase in your life is a more gratifying way of making sense of failure. In this way, reframing failure as an essential step to learn to move forward in life is a powerful way to avoid succumbing to unnecessary fears, worry and anxiety. Furthermore, it helps not to make your failures personal.
When it comes to dealing with failure, changing your self-talk can go a long way. We empower ourselves when we can say, “I made a bad choice. As a result the project failed,” or “I made a bad choice by partying all night, and as a result I didn’t pass the test,” rather than saying, “I’m a failure,” or “I’m stupid.” Overcoming the negativity that comes from feeling stupid or seeing ourselves as failures is incredibly burdensome, since at this point it becomes part of your identity.
On the other hand, when we can reframe the situation, giving ourselves the opportunity to make a better choice next time around, we avoid coming down with feelings of despair, worthlessness, or hopelessness. This is what happens when people ruminate over their problems and setbacks without finding a way to break the self-blame cycle. While we are born with the drive to understand and learn, this drive can be weakened by our mindset. As Carol Dweck, a researcher and Stanford University professor says, research points to beliefs that an individual’s abilities are fixed, leading a person to feel “stuck on who they are, with no way out, which in turn, can potentially lead to anxiety or depression." Dweck also notes that people with a fixed mindset do not believe in effort, creating for themselves a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle. They don’t put the necessary effort to overcome obstacles. As a result of not having put in the necessary effort, they fail, creating the expectation that they will continue to fail in future endeavors. This cycle does not provide the individual with the crucial insight to create a road map to overcome their obstacles to eventually achieve success.
Dweck sees being able to mobilize our resources for learning as the real ingredient in achieving our full potential. Success is about stretching ourselves. In Carol Dweck’s words, “A belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of (…) thoughts and actions, taking you down the path to success. Dealing with it, without dwelling on it."
Among other strategies, when we are trying something for the first, second, third time and we “fail,” a conceptual approach to transform that failure into an opportunity is to realize that we are failing forward. We fail forward when we allow ourselves time to assess our weakness and strengths and work on building ourselves to develop the needed skills for the job we want or the opportunity we pursue. Does the job require management experience? Do you need to get an additional certification? We fail forward when we should identify the strategy we need to move forward! Our thoughts should be,“ What can I do differently next time?”
Every time I am faced with a grant proposal that gets rejected, I see this rejection as me “failing forward.” Rather than feeling demoralized, I call the organization that rejected my grant, I speak with the program manager and I found out what went wrong. Was it the narrative that was too weak or maybe the problem statement?
Was it the program design or was it because the goals weren’t measureable? After taking copious notes, I prepare myself to fail forward, dealing with my “failure” directly, proactively and strategically, emerging stronger from the experience. Also taking into consideration, if I had not applied, I would have 100 percent chance of not getting it. At the end of the day, the best way not to get a grant is not to apply. And in case you are wondering, after holding my breath for a few weeks, my last two grant applications were awarded to the organization that I work for. Yes! I did fail forward, eventually writing winning grant applications.
In the end, by embracing our failures, we can transform any disappointment or roadblock that we encounter into a stepping-stone towards the road to our next well-deserved conquest.
Jusleine Daniel is a Rutgers College Class of 2006 and Masters of Social Work 2010 alumna.
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