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We Need to Teach Students How to Deal With Failure

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

Little girl looks upset with both palms pressed to her face. We need to focus on teaching students how to deal with failure instead of constantly pushing for success.

Little girl looks upset with both palms pressed to her face. We need to focus on teaching students how to deal with failure instead of constantly pushing for success.

When I was trying to move along in engineering school, my trigonometry professor slapped me with a failing grade. She, like any other college instructor, coldly submitted my final marks to the school’s online portal by typing it in along with all my classmates’ grades. In there, neatly lined up on a gray table, were my grades for the first semester of freshman year.

I had passed every other subject, and attained pretty high marks for a select few. In fact, my GPA set me up to become an honor student should I attain similar grades the following semester. But Spherical Trigonometry (Math 13) didn’t care—I was going to have to retake the subject remedially—and hopefully, with a different teacher.

Not passing Math 13 was one of my most memorable failures, because it was a teaching moment. And it unforgivingly gifted me a four-month long trauma, a depression that plagued me the entire second semester. Failing that mandatory class may have hurt me, but it also improved me. And without it—would I have known how to deal with failure?

I’m not sure.

Were you—during your life as a student—ever explicitly taught how to deal with failure? Did one or two people who were older than you, ever drag you to the corner of the room to tell you just how important dealing with failure was in making you a better person?

Maybe you were indeed taught about failure, but chances are you were taught about success most of the time. And it’s likely that you never lacked hearing about ‘the keys to success’ or ‘how to succeed in life.’ There are countless books about success, and these days, even masterclasses. But in yours, or in anyone’s lifetime, failure happens more often than success ever does—so why do we seem to be malnourished in learning from our shortcomings?

I empathize with this gap, so here are seven important things you should remember when dealing with failure.

7 Things to Remember When Dealing with Failure

  1. Take the time to process what went wrong.
  2. Record the learnings from your failure for future use.
  3. Accept some level of responsibility.
  4. Share your experience of failure with others.
  5. Research some famous, or notorious failures by prominent people.
  6. Be humble when you fail, and stay humble after.
  7. Develop healthy habits that encourage positive thinking.

1. Taking your time

Take the time to process what went wrong. Don’t rush looking for a solution.

You might be in a hurry to move on and not take as much time as you need to face your feelings. But feeling pain and getting acquainted with your own grief is the first logical step when you fail. You need to get to know who you are as person who fell short of attaining something. Do you feel frustrated? Angry? Just sad? Do you pity yourself?

Amy Morin who is a licensed clinical psychotherapist and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind tells you to “embrace your emotions” in her article 10 Healthy Ways to Cope With Failure. “Failure is accompanied by a variety of emotions,” she says, “embarrassment, anxiety, anger, sadness, and shame, to name a few.”

Morin cites a 2017 study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making that suggests you “shouldn’t try to slough off feeling bad after failure. Researchers discovered that thinking about your emotions—rather than failure itself—is most helpful.”

It’s only after you’ve faced these negative emotions that you should begin to look for some perspective. Because “allowing yourself to feel bad is motivating,” Morin adds. And you’ll be more clear-headed once you’ve already dealt with your feelings—it doesn’t help to procrastinate or shelve those emotions for later.

2. Capturing the lessons

Record the learnings from your failure for future use.

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I’ve always wondered why I never made the habit of capturing most of my learnings when it’s something that doesn’t relate to my full-time job. Because at work, I’m always taught by my bosses to list down what went wrong and what the things are that I can improve for the next project or deliverable. And it’s no wonder why despite progressing in my career, I’ve always felt a bit behind in life.

It’s hard to learn from your mistakes when you don’t capture what you’ve learned. What were the things that went wrong? What were the details that you missed? “Think about what you could do differently next time,” Amy Morin from Verywell Mind suggests. “Did you make a mistake? Did you make a whole series of mistakes?”

It helps to grab a notebook and list down the mistakes that you made, or to type them somewhere where you can look back later on when you need to. Writing down your mistakes also helps you approach your failure more objectively and, in a way, makes your mistakes more tangible. If you don’t capture your lessons in a documented manner, you won’t be able to accurately judge the magnitude of your mistakes or their impact, especially after time passes.

3. Accepting responsibility

Accept some level of responsibility.

Blaming everything else except yourself doesn’t help you learn from your failure. Of course, in some instances, it’s the factors beyond your control that overwhelmingly decide whether you succeed or fail—but this still doesn’t mean that you can’t take some of the blame for yourself.

This is one of the reasons why many people say that failure is a better teacher than success, because when you fail, you tend to zoom in on your own mistakes. On the other hand, when you succeed, it’s easy for you to ignore or forget the little mishaps you actually made, because you’re blinded by the favorable outcome.

Amy Morin from Verywell Mind tells us to “accept an appropriate level of responsibility.” And by this, she means that you should learn to judge just how much of the cause to the failure was from you, or was from something else. “Taking on too much,” she says, “can cause you to blame yourself. On the other hand, blaming other people or unfortunate circumstances on your failure will prevent you from learning from it.”

Learning how to fail entails improving at measuring your own responsibility. You can’t keep on saying ‘most of it was my fault’ every time you come up short. Nor can you keep spitting out excuses or point fingers due to your lack of accountability. There is an appropriate amount of responsibility for you to assume whenever you fail.

4. Sharing your experience

Share your experience of failure with others.

You might find it embarrassing to share your recent experience of failing. When I saw my trigonometry grade and found that it was below what was required for me to take on the succeeding subjects up the curriculum ladder, I hardly spoke with anyone for a week. Granted, I was the silent type and we were on our two-week break so I didn’t see my classmates as often—I still knew there was something different about how much I was willing to share with others. I had clammed up in disgrace.

You don’t have to be this way—unlike me, you can be more open. I didn’t know it then, but opening up about your failure, and letting others in will help you cope with it. And it’s an essential part of dealing with failure—some form of public acknowledgement. When you share your experience with someone else, you no longer have to hold it inside a bottle. It’s out there, and you can expect to feel some relief. The pressure’s off.

Acknowledging your failure and letting others know about it is analogous to when there’s a scandalous, or controversial incident that a big company was recently embroiled in. Take for example a mass producer of noodles which was found to have large amounts of a harmful chemical, say, ethylene oxide in its products. There’s a mass recall of its packed noodles in specific countries—the media has covered it, many people have come forward on social media, the FDA has publicly spoken about it—and yet, the company has not said a word. Would you trust a company that stays silent on such a massive issue?

If you learn to share your experience of failure with others, you'll also develop trust with them. You’ll come across as a more genuine person, and you’ll also impart learnings that might be helpful to those people.

5. Learning from famous failures

Research some famous, or notorious failures by prominent people.

If you still find yourself down despite a long period of processing your feelings and capturing learnings, it might help to research some of the most notorious failures in history.

You know why I find it entertaining to watch and read about the greatest blunders in Silicon Valley—Theranos, Juicero, WeWork, to name a few? Because their stories reassure me that even the smartest, richest people (I’m talking about the investors) can make monumental blunders in terms of where to park their money. Additionally, knowing that the media portrayed their CEOs as legends before they were even made, tells me that even the public isn’t so good at judging character.

Reading biographies of those who became legends also helps. When I came across the biography of Steve Jobs, it taught me so much of what I didn’t know about his past failures. Steve Jobs is another classic example of how failures are necessary precedents to success—Jobs failed many times in his early days at Apple and he failed his other company, NeXT.

Failure’s just a necessary part of the game, and there’s a tendency for popular culture to make it appear that successes came out of thin air. Of course, once you dive into the many of the world’s success stories, you’ll learn that trial-and-error begot what society deems as ‘acceptable.’

6. Staying humble

Be humble when you fail, and stay humble after.

One of the unproductive things you can feel when you fail is a sense of too much pride. Your lack of humility can get in the way of knowing what the problem is. I’ve seen this in myself and in other people—we stop listening to feedback or suggestions from others when we’re down, because we think we know what the answers are.

If you don’t swallow at least some of your pride during a losing moment, you’ll miss out on helpful tips or criticism that might just prevent the same mistakes from happening again. Letting constructive advice pass into one ear and out the other is very common when your parents try to teach you lesson when you face them during any failure. Because you mute their inputs out due to your pride, you might just be setting yourself back.

And another important thing to remember is to stay humble after—just because you’ve dealt with failure a lot, doesn’t mean you’ll be impervious to it. Remember that your failures come in all shapes and sizes, and you encounter new situations with a different perspective. It’s not wrong for you to be confident, but just remind yourself to stay humble because humility is key to having an open mind.

7. Developing healthy habits

Develop healthy habits that encourage positive thinking.

Lastly, nurture your healthy habits and get rid of toxic ones. “Calling a friend, going for a walk, or playing with your pet,” Amy Morin of Verywell Mind suggests, “are just a few examples of healthy ways to deal with your pain.”

And she further notes that if you struggle with bad habits when you’re stressed out, “create a list of healthy coping skills and hang it in a prominent place. Then, use your list to remind yourself of the healthier strategies you can turn to when you’re feeling bad.”

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of the old habits that never really helped you. For this, you don’t need to rely on yourself to get to a place where you can adopt healthier routines—don’t be afraid to reach out to someone like a family member, a friend, a colleague, or anyone who might be going through the same rough patch as you. Having that feeling of togetherness is sometimes enough to lift you out from your unhealthy habits.

Success is overrated

Should you continue to fail more often than you'd like, remind yourself that success is overrated. In a Forbes article written by Dumb Little Man entitled Why Success Is Highly Overrated, the writer reminds us that ‘success is never final’ as John Wooden once put it. “There is a constant surge for success,” the writer says, “There is an increased striving toward success. Yet there is so much more that makes up the success story, and that includes its two companions: failure and courage.”

Dumb Little Man provides us with three wonderful nuggets on why success is overrated:

  1. Success is never final.
  2. Failure is never fatal.
  3. It’s courage that counts.

“The only thing success has ever taught me,” the writer adds, “is the need for humility. Failure is what has taught me some of my greatest lessons. And the greatest thing it has taught me is this—to ask better questions. One of which is, what can I learn from this?

Let’s encourage students to talk about their failures and ask better questions.

Further Reading

Thanks to the many ‘masters of failure’ who have lent their wisdom for free, you can do some further reading on their works, which have helped me immensely in writing this article:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz

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