I grew up with a strong dislike for the f-word. It wasn’t a word I was comfortable using, and I don’t think I’m the only one. After all, failure is not comfortable for any of us!
When I graduated from college, I worried that I might not land the perfect job or that I wouldn’t get everything right the first time around. Like most people, I looked at failure as The End, proof that either I wasn’t good enough, or that my plan wasn’t a sound one.
We all know that failure happens to everyone. The only thing that separates people who succeed from those who don’t is a proper understanding of what failure means. If you associate failure with defeat and despair, you will give up or take steps to avoid it at all cost. If, however, you associate failure with growth and improvement, you will use it as a springboard to future success.
On the other hand, a ton of failures will not automatically lead to success. It’s the relationship you have with those failures that makes the difference. If you fail and do not learn from the experience, the future only holds more dramatic failure. The opposite is also true; if you fail and learn from it, the future will hold success.
Here are four reasons why failure can lead to spectacular success, it:
1. Failure produces scrappiness
Many leaders are allergic to the idea of failure. They cannot tell the difference between an iteration that didn’t work, and defeat. Ego may be part of the reason because success, unfortunately, can create big heads.
However, many hard-working entrepreneurs believe failure creates success. "Shark Tank" investor Barbara Corcoran said she looks to invest in individuals who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds for that very reason.
"My bias toward the poor person coming up is they're usually hungrier. They're more injured. They have more to prove," Corcoran said on an episode of the Business Insider podcast "Success! How I Did It." "So they've had a few bumpy endings and they're used to failure, and, my God, what's more important in building a business than failing?" she added.
How to make it work for you: Read up on Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsets. It’s the idea that we can grow our brain's capacity to learn and to solve problems. There are two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve: 1) Are you not smart enough to solve it? or 2) Have you just not solved it yet?
2. Failure teases out the scientist
Scientific experiments are built on this simple concept: Make an assumption, experiment, prove it wrong, and continue until you can’t prove it wrong. Scientists are not afraid on being wrong on their way to being right.
This is the same idea behind innovation. The innovation curve of a startup reflects how a company learns based on trial and error. Too often we only hear about the success of Google and Facebook, but the more common story is about the entrepreneurs who fail multiple times before they nail it.
How to make it work for you: Look at each failure as an iteration that you closely examine for why it didn’t work. Once you understand how to change the potential outcome next time, try again. The key is to understand how you can modify your approach so you change the outcome.
3. Failure demands reflection
This is something I learned in the FBI Academy: If you’re succeeding, you’re not pushing your limits. Every new agent was pushed to the point of failure.
At first, I thought I’d joined a bunch of sadists. Eventually, I came to understand that failure would be part of complex investigations. Often, agents need to circle a case several times before they discovered the soft underbelly. This meant several failures before the solution could be found and the case solved.
Part of the discovery lays in identifying whether the mistakes or failures are a product of our own weakness. I had good success on a couple of my first counterintelligence cases so, I figured I’d approach my next few cases the same way. Guess what? They were failures. Those failures demanded that I take a hard look at my weaknesses. In my situation, my failures were a result of a lack of confidence in myself. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be successful unless I used the same approach, but the context was different in the later cases.
To move forward, I had to reflect on what had happened and work on how to resolve the situation. I needed to evolve and develop more confidence in my own abilities. It was painful, but because those moments of pain were so important, I didn’t rush through them. I stayed with them and explored them because I needed to build a foundation for improvement.
How to make it work for you: Write down your mistakes or failures, and connect the dots. Identify the weakness that stands in the way of you getting what you want. You may have several, but don’t go beyond “the biggest three.” The important thing is to get those impediments out in the open.
4. Failure generates a "can-do" attitude
Life deals you a bad hand. What are you going to do? Move toward the challenge, cry like a baby, run away or do nothing?
Our reaction to failure is a test of character, and it says a lot about us. Always remember that it doesn’t matter what you’ve been given. What matters is what you do with it. Since we have layers of fear, often our first response is to exaggerate the situation and interpret life’s challenges as a crisis. We become cautious, retreat and hope for things to get better all on their own.
Parents who overprotect their kids from adversity reinforce that way of thinking. They swoop in and come to the rescue. As a result, their kids never have to analyze how to work it out for themselves. They do not have the opportunity to develop their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.
There are certain types of people who experience childhood struggles, like poverty and strife, and go on to incredible achievement. They learn to be resilient because what is in front of them is all they care about, so they work with it.
When you make yourself aware of certain difficulties that are inevitable, you can prepare yourself mentally for confronting them head-on. Soldiers and athletes appreciate the preparation it takes to mentally and physically meet the challenges ahead of them. They know it can be ugly, daunting and grueling, but they are equipped.
How to make it work for you: The middle of a crisis is not the time to learn how to handle life’s challenges and overcome failure. Train ahead of time so that when they do show up, you will have cultivated courage, confidence and discipline.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.