Whether it’s coming in last in a race after months of training, missing out on a promotion you thought you had in the bag, or dealing with the breakdown of a once happy relationship, failure saps our passion and makes us feel, well, like garbage.
My instincts tell me to avoid failure at all costs. The result? I stay in my comfort zone, take fewer risks, and focus on the things I’m already good at.
The problem is, in doing so, I miss out on countless opportunities.
Back when I was studying language, failure didn’t phase me. I headed off for my year abroad teaching English in Italy with enthusiasm—what could go wrong?
It was only once my plane had landed and I’d taught my first class that I realized I’d never really known failure until now—I wasn’t a natural teacher and getting a class of rowdy teenagers to sit down and listen seemed impossible, never mind trying to teach them English.
During those first few weeks, my only thought was figuring out what I was going to say to people back home once they’d heard what a failure I was.
In truth, my initial failure was the biggest key to my success. It helped me develop my teaching practice faster, made me stronger, and reminded me to be humble. When you’re facing a new challenge and failure seems inevitable, here are three things to hold on to.
1. Failure is an opportunity to learn
On the rare occasion that my lessons would go as planned, I’d leave the class on cloud nine thinking I’d finally cracked it! Imagine my disappointment when the next lesson I taught would go catastrophically wrong, with me resorting to shouting over a class of chattering teenagers that I’d failed to excite about the past perfect tense.
Failure provides an opportunity to reflect and improve. If I couldn’t maintain the children’s attention, I’d persevere with different approaches until something finally worked.
My initial difficulties meant I was forced to develop a range of teaching strategies and think creatively to solve problems. Provided that I never gave up, each new obstacle was merely a bump in the learning curve.
2. Failure builds strength
As a teacher, I wanted to do right by my pupils. But there were many frazzled evenings when I struggled to write the perfect lesson plan, and I just wanted to give up.
I didn’t realize it in the moment, but every time I picked myself up and walked back into class, I was building a bank of resilience to draw on in the future. Now, when I face a daunting new challenge, I remind myself of this period in my life and how things can improve as long as you keep trying.
Realizing that failure doesn’t mean never trying again gave me the confidence to take on new challenges in all areas of life. At work work, I’d put myself forward for presentations, knowing I had the confidence to stand in front of a group of people, and a 10k run that would previously have seemed impossible has become just another challenge to work hard to overcome.
Before experiencing failure, I’d keep replaying the worst case scenario over and over in my head. Now, having been there, I know that even the most difficult barriers can be overcome if you’re prepared to try again.
3. Failure makes us human
As someone who found school easy, I initially struggled to relate to my students. Why couldn’t they just work harder?
After a few weeks of trying and failing miserably to get my class to discuss their hobbies in a foreign language, I learned that effort doesn’t always guarantee success.
Having experienced the frustration of working hard and not seeing an instant improvement, I was suddenly able to empathize with those pupils who couldn’t grasp a tricky concept.
Failing builds empathy. It helps us see that we can’t be the best at everything and encourages us to value effort over achievement. I was more proud of finally being a successful teacher than I ever was of the grades I got at school, because I knew how hard I’d worked to get there.
There are few who greet failure with open arms, but seeing failure as an opportunity to learn, build resilience, and help you relate to others means you can face tough challenges without fear.
Now I realize that I could only have failed my year abroad by coming home, because as long as I’m still trying, I haven’t failed yet.