Why learning from failure is your key to success

March 30, 2022 - 22 min read

learning-from-failure-person-with-arms-oopen

Jump to section

What is failure?

What do you learn from failure?

Why is it important to learn from failure?

How does failure lead to learning?

5 tips for learning from failure

10 quotes about learning from failure

I’ve failed at quite a few things in my life. 

As a kid, I tried guitar, the cello, and piano — all with mediocre (at best) results. I quickly dumped instruments for sports. But I learned that even despite my height, I wasn’t very good at basketball. Or soccer. Or tennis. (I was atrociously bad at tennis, to be fair.) 

As an adult, failures continued. I didn’t get that “dream job” I wanted. I was rejected from a graduate school program I really wanted to attend. I’ve pitched a chapbook to dozens of publishers with dozens matched in rejection letters. I had an idea for a new way of doing things at work — and it didn’t work out. Even some relationships and friendships failed

But along the way, I learned. I learned from my mistakes. I learned what my strengths were. I learned where I wanted to take my career. I learned that failures don’t define me. I learned that in order to succeed, I needed to fail. And I learned that it’s possible to get better at something — even after you’ve failed. 

When you experience a failure, you can feel it in your gut. You may think to yourself, “I’m never coming back from this.” Your confidence and self-esteem can take a hit. You might not want to try something new again. 

It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to perfect the light bulb. Arianna Huffington was rejected by 36 publishers. Bill Gates’ first company was a complete disaster.

Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for lack of creativity. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job, where she experienced sexual harassment in a hostile work environment

The most successful people in the world have failed, often. How are you learning from failure? What lessons can failure teach you? Where can you find gratitude in failure? 

What is failure?

We’ve all experienced failure. And honestly, our definition of failure might vary depending on our experiences. So, what is failure

But at its core, failure is defined as a lack of success. Failure is defined as the inability to meet an expectation. Here are some examples of failure: 

  • A high school student needs to get an A on a math test to get a B in the class. They study and work with the teacher one-on-one. But when the test results come back, they received a B. This means they will get a C+ in the class. 
  • A job seeker recently learned new skills through a workforce development program. They’ve graduated from the program but can’t seem to find a job. They’ve applied to almost 50 jobs with no interviews. 
  • An employee recently got promoted to become a people manager. However, in annual performance reviews, they learn their team is really struggling. The team isn’t delivering on its goals. On top of it, the manager is receiving upward feedback that they need to work on their people management skills. 

"We learn more from our failures than from our successes. Not only do we find out what doesn’t work so that we can adjust our future attempts, we learn about ourselves in the process and gain a bit of empathy towards others that might be struggling as well."

 Kealy Spring, Leadership Fellow Coach, BetterUp  

People have studied failure. There’s growing research and science around what it means to fail. In fact, failure has been a proven prerequisite for success. But here’s the catch: failure only works to your advantage if you learn from your failures. 

What do you learn from failure?

Failure hurts. It doesn’t make us feel good. It can put our perfectionism to the test. It can be difficult to pick ourselves up to try again. 

So, what do you learn from failure? Short answer: a lot more than you think. 

Resilience

From failure, we learn resiliency. It’s hard to not learn how to build resilience after a failure, especially if you’re determined to overcome failure. 

Resilience is an important life skill to build. And when you build (and learn) resilience, it helps you in other ways, too. Resilience can help you build a growth mindset. It can help you adopt the right behaviors to overcome change. And it can help you build grit, tenacity, and motivation. 

Humility 

Our egos are sensitive. They can grow and evolve into beasts of their own. And most of the time, a healthy dose of failure is good for our ego. It keeps us humble. Failure can teach us how to embody important characteristics, like humility in leadership

Flexibility 

Even the best-laid plans are disrupted. And that goes for failures, too. You might’ve set a goal that you’ve realized you’ve overestimated the scope. You’ve learned from your first failure that you need to adjust your goal. Or maybe, you can still achieve your goal. You just need to adjust your approach. 

That’s where flexibility comes in. I often think of the phrase: You can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Failures teach us flexibility, adaptability, and how to overcome obstacles. It teaches us to use change to our advantage. It keeps us nimble and helps us adopt that growth mindset. 

New call-to-action

Innovation and creativity 

Much like flexibility, innovation and creativity can present themselves as lessons of failure. 

I studied creative writing. One of my favorite professors used to congratulate us for completing a crappy first draft. He’d say, “Be okay with the crappy first draft. It’ll get better and better your third, fourth, fifth draft.”  

Edison didn’t land the lightbulb on the first, second, or even thousandth try. It took 10,000 tries to perfect the lightbulb. Innovation and creativity take time, iterations, and failures along the way. Practice some patience and Inner Work® to keep the creative juices flowing, even amid failure. 

Motivation 

I’m one of those people who when someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me that much more determined to prove them wrong. 

Motivation is a valuable and important lesson from failure. Oftentimes, our failures are motivators. For example, let’s say you’re practicing your presentation skills. You’ve done multiple presentations and public speaking opportunities. And you make mistakes along the way. But by your tenth presentation, you finally nail it flawlessly. 

Seeing progress along the way is a big motivator. Failure can help fuel our motivation and help us reach our goals. 

learning-from-failure-man-at-window-on-laptop

Why is it important to learn from failure?

We’re human beings. That means we enter this world with a lot of opportunities for growth and personal development. Together, we’re on this collective journey to better ourselves (and the world around us). But in order to do so, we need to fail. 

It’s important to learn from failure because it brings us one step closer to reaching success. It’s been cited that one in four entrepreneurs fail at their business before succeeding. 

Duke University professor Sim Sitkin dubbed the term “intelligent failures.” Intelligent failures are good for us because it brings us knowledge, value, and insight. What’s important to remember is that we need to pause and reflect. We need to pay close attention to our failures to be able to learn from them. 

How does failure lead to learning?

There are plenty of learning opportunities hidden in our failures. But how does failure lead to learning? Here are three ways failure leads to learning. 

learning-from-failure-quote-bozoma-saint-john

Failure puts us back to square one

By definition, failure means that we didn’t achieve success. It forces us back to square one, more often than not. 

But after failing, we know that we can’t approach the same task or goal in the same way. We wouldn’t achieve the same result. So, the act of failure inevitably leads to thinking of new ways to overcome obstacles

Failure forces us to examine what went wrong 

Reflection is an important part of failure. Without reflection, we wouldn’t learn. It’s important that after we fail, we take a moment to sit with it. 

What about the failure went well? What didn’t go well? Where can we pinpoint what went wrong? It helps us to figure out how to course correct and do it better the next time. 

Failure allows us to innovate 

As the phrase goes, we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect the same results. Innovation is critical to learning. But in order to innovate, we need to know what went wrong. 

Failure leads to learning because we’re able to identify where we went off track. From there, we can implement new ideas, new approaches, and new strategies. All of this results in increased innovation and creativity, which aids us in our learning journey

5 tips for learning from failure 

We’ve all failed. But we can learn to fail gracefully to help expedite the learning process. Here are five tips for learning from failure. 

1. Don’t give up 

We’ve all been there. A failure particularly stings and we want to just throw in the towel. 

Here’s your sign that you shouldn’t. Be persistent in pursuit of your dreams. It might take some reframing of perspectives. For example, can you break your big goal into little wins? 

I have a lifelong goal of publishing a book. I’ve tried writing various novels over the years. But the idea of writing a full book sounds so daunting and intimidating. I’ve abandoned my ideas over and over again. 

But now, I’m in a couple of creative writing classes. I’m setting smaller goals for myself. Instead of having a full book as my goal, I’m trying to focus on writing 2,000 words a week. It keeps me motivated and prevents me from giving up. 

"If you recently failed at something, give yourself a moment to process it, feel the emotions whatever they may be, and then work to reframe the perceived failure as an opportunity for growth. Ask yourself, 'what did I learn from that?' It is ultimately about cultivating a growth mindset and celebrating the effort rather than the result."

Kealy Spring, Leadership Fellow Coach, BetterUp 

2. Adopt a growth mindset 

You have to want to learn to actually learn from failure. To do this well, you need to adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset embraces challenges. It perseveres even in failures. People can learn, change, and adapt. It wants to learn and grow. It accepts and embraces constructive feedback and constructive criticism

And it’s not easy. But a fixed mindset doesn’t set up anyone for success. Think of ways you can change your perspective around your day-to-day interactions as a start. 

3. Practice Inner Work®  

The science behind Inner Work® shows incredible mental fitness benefits. Inner Work® looks different for everyone. For example, a 30-minute walk in the morning can be your daily Inner Work®. Or a week away from work while you take advantage of your unlimited PTO. Or just a three-minute journaling session or mindful moment

Whatever your Inner Work® looks like, practice it. Embed Inner Work® into your daily habits. You’ll find better clarity, more productivity, increased creativity and innovation, and more.   

learning-from-failure-woman-in-flower-field

4. Be courageous 

During the most recent winter Olympics, a video of a four-year-old going snowboarding went viral. The father of the little girl hooked her up to a microphone to record her positive self-talk while she cruises down the mountain. In the video, you can hear her say, “I won’t fall. Maybe I will. That’s OK ‘cause we all fall.” 

To fail takes courage. But to try again after failure takes even more. It’s OK if you fail (and then fail again). But have the courage to get up and try and try again. 

5. Build mental fitness

Hand-in-hand with a growth mindset comes mental fitness. Look at failure as a learning journey. What skills can you pick up along the way? What tools can you add to your toolbox? What new things can you take away from your failures? 

Start building your mental fitness plan with failures as part of your journey. With increased mental fitness, you’ll find yourself better equipped to weather the ups and downs of life. BetterUp can help you on your mental fitness journey. 

10 quotes about learning from failure

Wise words have been said about failure. We’ve compiled ten of our favorite quotes about learning from failure. Here are some words of wisdom to add to your desk or fridge. 

  1. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ― Winston S. Churchill
  2. “Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it.” ― Salvador Dali
  3. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ― Maya Angelou
  4. “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
  5. “Success, after all, loves a witness, but failure can't exist without one.” ― Junot Díaz 
  6. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” ― Amelia Earhart
  7. “Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so 'safe,' and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.” ― Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  8. “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” ― Johnny Cash
  9.  "It's only when you risk failure that you discover things. When you play it safe, you're not expressing the utmost of your human experience." ― Lupita Nyong'o
  10. “It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” ― Bill Gates

What do you notice about all of these quotes? What reframing can you bring to your perspective? 

Learn to embrace your failures 

Everyone experiences failure. And oftentimes, it’s the fear of failure that stands in the way of our success. Failure has inherently come with the idea that it’s a bad thing. But in reality, the best failures are the best learners. From business leaders to celebrities, successful people are built on failure. 

With the right mindset and permission to fail, you can learn valuable lessons. Our past failures are a part of the learning experience. And sometimes, it’s the major failures that teach us the most. 

How can you shift your thought process around failure? Can you tackle your fear of failure head-on? Reaching our full human potential means that we’re inevitably bound to fail. But instead of wallowing, try courage. Instead of pity, try grit. Instead of defeat, try persistence. 

Learning to fail can help build your mental fitness, one step at a time. And with strong mental fitness, you can unlock your full potential and achieve your dreams. BetterUp can help. Get started with a coach today. 

New call-to-action

Published March 30, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

Read Next

Culture
13 min read | July 29, 2020

How self-compassion strengthens resilience

Self-compassion is how supportive and understanding we are with ourselves around perceived failures, weakness, and imperfection. Read More
Professional Development
22 min read | August 18, 2021

What is failure and how can we make the most of it?

What is failure? Discover what failure is, why you shouldn’t be afraid of it, and how you can recover, ultimately turning it into learning and success. Read More
Well-being
13 min read | November 10, 2021

Dealing with work anxiety? How, when, and if you should tell your boss

Work anxiety can make you feel like you’re always on the verge of failure. Learn the four different kinds of anxiety in the workplace and how to ask for support. Read More
Well-being
22 min read | January 4, 2022

22+ New Year’s resolutions ideas for 2022

Setting – and forgetting – our goals is a time-honored tradition. Here are the most popular New Year's resolution ideas and tips on how to keep them. Read More
Research & Insights
11 min read | February 4, 2022

The science behind Inner Work®

Learn from three industry experts, authors, and researchers — Dr. Christine Carter, Rhonda Magee, and Shawn Achor —  why Inner Work® actually works. And find out how you can... Read More
Professional Development
16 min read | August 1, 2022

How to negotiate — Or, how to make friends and influence people

Knowing how to negotiate is a super skill in a range of circumstances. Here are 7 tips for negotiating effectively and fairly. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.