• We limit ourselves when a fear of failure stops us from taking risks

  • Author of Exhausted Anna Katharina Schaffner wants you to ask yourself: what would you dare to attempt in life if you could genuinely allow yourself to fail?

Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, have become a popular cliché both in business management and in the literature on personal development. And yet most of us don’t know how to fail. That is because there is nothing harder than failing, let alone failing well. 

Failure is one of our most deep-seated fears. To try our best and not succeed can be the cause of great shame and anguish. And, of course, of a deep kind of existential exhaustion that is caused by the loss of motivation and hope. Often, our self-worth is firmly tied to our successes in the arenas of work, play or love. If the activities to which we dedicate our time and effort don’t work out as we wish, we tend to suffer two blows: loss of status and dignity in the external world, and injuries to our self-image. Failure threatens both our pride and our sense of accomplishment.  

Failure, then, often feels like a matter of existential importance, irrespective of whether it is in our career or our personal relationships. In highly competitive individualist societies, it is particularly stigmatised. Donald Trump, for example, was obsessed with calling people losers. In his books, being a loser was the worst thing anyone could  be – worse than being uncaring, a liar, amoral or even a criminal. The Trumpian loser is supposedly someone who either loses their money and power or else squanders opportunities for maximising them. Losers are too weak to succeed in a society in which the strongest and smartest, or, more accurately, the most ruthless, thrive. Trump is far from being alone in this assessment. This vilification of the ‘loser’ is very much part of our culture. At a deeper level, this cultural attitude is indicative of more timeless anxieties about the transient nature of our power and possessions, and about helplessness and dependency.  

How, then, can we practise what Beckett preached?  

How can we fail better? 

Failing well can only be achieved on two conditions: acceptance and learning. Let’s begin with acceptance. Statistically speaking, it is highly likely that we will fail on numerous fronts in our lives. More than 50 per cent of marriages in the West end in divorce. Long-term relationships are now harder than ever to form and to sustain. Globally, an estimated 90 per cent of new start-ups fail. In the UK, almost one in five new businesses goes into administration in its first year. Many of our transactional dynamics now have the quality of zero-sum games, where there are clearly defined winners and losers, one player’s gain being equivalent to another player’s loss. 

And yet we are all in thrall to survivorship bias: our attention is firmly focused on winners, the small percentage of highly successful people, products or businesses who made it through arduous selection processes.  

Generally speaking, the more courageous we are and the more we put ourselves out there, the higher our chances of failing become. Failure is a natural consequence of taking risks, and risks are an inevitable part of being human.  

We risk rejection whenever we ask someone out. We risk having our hearts broken when we form relationships of any kind, be they with friends or with lovers. When we speak our minds, when we present ourselves authentically to the world, we risk offending others. We risk losing our time and money when we launch businesses, invent products or change careers to pursue our passions. Whenever we engage in competitive activities such as sports or games, we risk losing to people who are more talented or experienced than us. When we pour our hearts and souls into novels, music or art, we risk people not appreciating what we cherish. And yet shirking risks of those kinds is simply not an option, for risk avoidance is nothing less than life avoidance.  

Changing our attitude to risk-tasking

A sensible attitude to failure would not simply entail accepting that failure is very likely to be a constant companion in our lives, but also acknowledging the fact that failure is the flip-side of care: anything that is worth doing, having or being entails risk. The more we care about the outcome, the higher the stakes are, of course. 

While we cannot and should not take risks all the time, we also cannot seek to eliminate all risk from our lives because that would also mean eliminating everything about which we care and that might make us happy. The risk-avoidant approach may result in us denying ourselves the chance to meet our most basic needs. Those needs include forming and maintaining nourishing relationships, seeking knowledge and new experiences, striving for status and practising altruism.  

Theodore Roosevelt was right when he said: ‘It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.’ The worst kind of failure is not even trying because of our fear of failure. In fact, this is one of the most serious existential crimes we can commit, and we ourselves are its victims. If we were able to develop a kinder and more compassionate attitude to failure, if we could cease to be our own harshest judges, we could significantly lower the stakes and disentangle failure from our worth as human beings.  

While we cannot control whether or not we succeed, we can control how we view ourselves afterwards. What would we dare to attempt in life if we could genuinely allow ourselves to fail? The writer Maya Angelou notes: ‘You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked down.’ In other words, the more we fail, the stronger we will become and  the faster we will learn to rise again. 

What do we actually mean by failure?

It's worth investigating what we mean by failure. At a basic level, failure is of course the opposite of success, not getting what we want or what we set out to achieve. But there are very different ways of looking at setbacks of that kind. First, they may be temporary in nature. We may, for example, have lost a single battle but still stand a chance of winning the war. As Winston Churchill put it: ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ In less militaristic terms, sometimes our failures may only be temporary setbacks on a longer journey towards a cause that will ultimately succeed. It is no coincidence that many fairy tales involve characters who must attempt something three times before they are successful. 

Most importantly, however, failures are our most valuable teachers. Our failures can show us how to get better, grow and learn from our experiences, including the shame ful and painful ones. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the  lightbulb, is famous for having stated: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Inventors and scientists are particularly adept at learning from failure. They patiently try out and methodically assess what doesn’t work, until they eventually find a way that does. Most of us won’t fall into that category, for it is challenging to look at our problems through an experimental lens. And yet we have important lessons to learn from the domains in which failures are the objects of analytical study. 

The journalist Matthew Syed has written an entire book about the art of learning from failure. In Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance (2015), he presents a compelling case for changing our collective attitudes to failure. When we fail, most of us feel shame, blame others or simply try to hide our mistakes. But that, Syed argues, is completely to misunderstand how  progress is made: without engaging seriously with failure, there would be no science, no development, no growth. He goes on to advocate what he calls ‘black box thinking’, a dramatic change in our mindset that destigmatises failure and instead seeks to harness its benefits. As he observes, an exemplary attitude to failure already exists in the aviation industry. After each plane crash, considerable effort is invested in the retrieval and analysis of the information contained in the ‘black box’ flight recorder in order to understand what went wrong and to feed that knowledge back into the production process. It is one of the reasons that air travel is, statistically speaking, one of the safest forms of travel there is. 

Syed argues that the opposite mindset prevails in the healthcare sector, where no productive procedures are in place to learn from error. This is astounding, for the rate of deaths from preventable human errors is staggeringly high. About 100,000 Americans die of avoidable human medical errors each year. This is ‘the equivalent of two jumbo jets falling out of the sky every twenty-four hours’. 

Lagging behind only heart disease and cancer, preventable medical error is currently the third biggest killer in the US. In the UK, it is estimated that one in every ten patients ‘is killed or injured as a consequence of medical or institutional shortcomings’. In France, the number is even higher, an estimated 14 per cent. The core difference between the healthcare and aviation sectors is the attitude to failure. Where failures are examined openly and analytically, without blame or denial, and when feedback is acted upon, growth and improvement follow naturally. In institutional cultures where cover-ups and non-transparency are standard, by contrast, blame and shame prevail.  

Our reluctance to learn from failure is not, however, due only to dominant working cultures. Psychological  reasons also play an important role. Chief among them is our inclination to avoid, if necessary at high cost, what the social psychologist Leon Festinger has called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Festinger argues that we have a very strong drive to establish harmony between our values, beliefs, behaviours and external information. If we perceive an inconsistency between our beliefs and external evidence, we strive to eliminate this dissonance. Because it is the path of least resistance, however, we tend not to change  our deeply-held beliefs, but rather to ignore or reframe evidence that does not fit into our picture of the world. Because cognitive dissonance threatens our inner balance  and self-esteem, we often filter, twist and bend what disturbs us.  

The attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance may, of course, also include our own shortcomings. We can invest considerable mental energy in blocking mistakes we have made from entering our conscious thought, spinning self justifications and alternative narratives, or else putting the blame on others. When it comes to developing a healthier attitude to failing, then, the cultural and psychological odds are against us. Nevertheless, we may begin to look  at failure differently, as an essential part of lives lived courageously. In addition, we may wish to peer into our own black boxes from time to time, especially after we crash, and see what kind of information awaits us there. The poet Antonio Machado urges us simply to harvest wisdom from our past failures: 

Last night, as I was sleeping, 

I dreamt – marvelous error! – 

that I had a beehive 

here inside my heart. 

And the golden bees 

were making white combs 

and sweet honey 

from my old failures …

Anna Katharina Schaffner is a burnout coach and the author of Exhausted: An A to Z for the Weary

Further reading

Where success really comes from

What's wrong with being a perfectionist?

Why willpower isn't the answer to your problems