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Failure is the First Step to Success

Updated on March 26, 2013

Sifting through the pages, my friends and I were looking for our project’s name. We entered a contest, and last night was the reveal of the top sixty projects. We were anxious to see whether we made the cut. Many people can probably relate to the feelings we were going through. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re about to get your test back, or the same feeling you get when you’re crowding around your school’s bulletin board to see whether you got a part in the play, or made the school team. The nerves are unsettling, people are afraid of the unknown. Even if you’re confident you made it, you’re still a bit nervous until you get some reassurance. Then, as you scan the list from top to bottom, and you realize the absence of your name, you might first think that there’s been a mistake. After considering all the alternatives, and the impossibility of the mistake, you come to terms with your failure.

Failure is being unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal. It is that frog in your throat, that raincloud over your head, that extra weight on your shoulders. No one likes to fail, and no one actually plans to fail. But, for every success, there are a multitude of failures. So, how do we cope with failure? Should we schedule a therapy session with Jack Daniel? Or maybe the answer is hiding at the bottom of a bag of chips? The only person who can give you an answer is you.

You are your own worst critic and you have to learn to deal with your failures and inadequacies. The best way to go about this is in the form of self-compassion. First, however, let’s take a closer look at failure. Many of us are afraid of failure. People have a fear of failure called atychiphobia. This fear is immobilizing and it can stop you from achieving something greater in life. You’re hesitant to try something new, or take a risk because you don’t believe you’ll succeed. If you don’t try, then you can’t fail, right? Well, failure is something that is to be expected if you want to succeed. Remember a guy named Steve Jobs? In 1985, he was fired from Apple. And billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin group, dropped out of high school. Despite their setbacks, these men preserved and went on to achieve great things. Now those examples are a little extreme, but they illustrate the point.

What’s more is that failure can even provide you with some benefits. Failure can help you discover who you are, and what you’re made of. In addition, it can help you discover who your true friends are. Everyone’s your friend when things are going great but, your true friends are there for you even when you’re down in the dumps.

Obviously the cons tend to outweigh the pros when we’re speaking about failure. So, to help alleviate the fear of failure, here are some helpful tips: analyze the potential outcomes, look at the worst case scenario, learn to be more optimistic, and have a contingency plan. Analyzing all of the potential outcomes will help you overcome the fear of the unknown. It will better acquaint you with the possibilities of your decision. In any case, if you expected something to happen, you will be more prepared to deal with that outcome. Furthermore, if you look at the worst case scenario, you get an idea of the worst possible outcome. Then you can use your judgement, analyze the actual probability of this occurrence, and decide whether the potential benefits will outweigh the consequences. Lastly, it’s important to be optimistic and have a plan B. In the event of failure, it’s helpful to have an alternative course of action. It gives people a sense of security because they have something to fall back on.

Moreover, a more appropriate way for dealing with failure, in the long run, is self-compassion. Researchers, at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted two studies examining the effects of self-compassion towards failure. Self-compassion consists of being kind to oneself in instances of failure, perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, and holding painful feelings in mindful awareness. Their findings showed that when self-compassion is employed, people take an open-minded, non-judgemental attitude towards themselves as opposed to an attitude of harsh criticism or severe judgment.

It’s important to distinguish self-compassion from self-esteem. Self-compassion is not based on performance evaluations; which compare your performance in relation to others. In addition, it’s not based on conforming to a set of ideal standards. Rather, self-compassionate individuals are motivated to achieve goals, but this goal is not driven by the desire to strengthen a person’s self-image. It is driven by the compassionate desire to maximize one’s potential and well-being.

The idea of self-compassion is derived from Buddhist psychology. Self-compassion requires you to recognize your shared humanity with others. According to Kristen Neff, head of the Educational Psychology department at the University of Texas, “it invokes desiring one’s own well-being, taking a non-judgmental attitude towards one’s inadequacies and failures, and framing one’s own experience in light of the common human experience.” In self-compassion, you take on the role of the other. You view yourself through the eyes of an outside observer. What’s more is that you should avoid self-pity. It’s important to remember that other people experience similar problems.

For me and my film buddies, the most recent failure reminds me of the Tim Burton film, Ed Wood. After some disastrous reviews, Ed’s colleagues were ready to give up. Conrad, Ed’s colleague, asked Ed if he really thought they were doing great work. Ed replied, “Absolutely! It’s just the beginning. I promise this: If we stick together, one day I’ll make every single one of you famous.” Oddly enough, Ed’s promise came through. He became known as the worst director in the history of cinema. Hopefully, when everything is all said and done, we don't share the same fate as Edward D. Wood Jr. Our goal is to perfect our craft, and be good at it. So, as aspiring filmmakers, we’ll adopt the idea of self-compassion. We will assess our failure in a non-judgmental manner, learn from our mistakes, and strive to be the best that we can be. This is just the beginning.


Kristin D Neff , Ya-Ping Hsieh & Kullaya Dejitterat (2005): Self-compassion,
Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure, Self and Identity, 4:3, 263-287

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