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“Fail better”: Shifting the narrative around failure

I keep just one quote on my bulletin board. Penned by the playwright Samuel Beckett, it reads: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” While appreciably neat and quippy, it has retained its place of honor for two other reasons. 

Firstly, it speaks to the inevitability of failure and establishes failure as a given in life, even a baseline. This is useful because it gives one permission to fail, something I previously hadn’t granted myself much leeway about. 

Secondly, it serves as a powerful reminder to challenge aspects of the culture we live in, which fears failure and worships perfection to an almost pathological degree. Whether worrying about perfecting the body or being a perfect worker or student, we strive to no end. What could be more radically opposed to perfection than the notion that we must fail constantly by default? 

So why is it so hard to embrace failure? 

For one, failure just feels bad, plain and simple. “Our bodies’ response to failure can even mimic that of physical pain,” Oset Babur writes for the New York Times. 

But failure is essential for growth, and one cannot be extricated from the other. By changing our mindset, we can set ourselves up for constructive failures. 

Rachel Simmons, who teaches “failure resilience,” points to the difference between a “fixed” versus “growth” mindset. By changing the “fixed” belief that not being good at something immediately means one is destined to remain bad at it, a person can start to develop aspects of themself over time using a “growth” mentality. 

Simmons makes the point that women are more likely to blame themselves after a failure, whereas men are more inclined to blame external events that might have gone wrong and contributed to their failing. This makes learning how to fail all the more essential for those of us who are inclined to self-blame. 

So how does one learn how to fail? 

Part of the challenge lies in dealing with the aftermath of failure and the narrative we tell ourselves about our failures. Simmons directs her readers to self-compassion as the antidote to the shame we experience about our inevitable failures. Taming one’s inner critic is part of this journey. 

Anchored in Buddhist teachings, the practice of self-compassion entails accepting our reality and ourselves rather than punishing or criticizing ourselves. This has far-reaching benefits. “When we give ourselves a break and accept our imperfections…we’re more likely to take care of ourselves and live healthier lives,” Tara Parker-Hope writes for the New York Times.

We are often kinder to others than we are to ourselves, and we can use this as a tool to help ourselves. “Imagine what you would say to a friend in the situation. Then direct those words at yourself,” Simmons writes.

To help us in our pursuit of self-compassion, Simmons suggests using the following techniques, which target rumination and self-criticism.

  1. “Take a walk and look at the trees. Focus all your attention for a few seconds at a time on the color of the leaves or the sound of the branches moving. It sounds obvious, but it works.”
  1. “Imagine a stop sign. When you catch yourself overthinking, this image can make your brain stop its machinations.”
  1. “Remember what’s good in your life. What are you grateful for right now? Asking yourself this question may stop you from feeling so bad.”
  1. “Get your body moving. Anything that gets you out of your head — working out, cooking a tricky recipe or Kondo-ing your closet — will help.” 

In addition, Simmons advocates practicing risk-taking in “low-stakes ways” to beef up one’s failure repertoire. “Try something that makes you nervous every day,” she suggests. That way, one can work their way up to bigger goals from smaller, bite-sized ones. 

“Real change happens in small increments, and often not very flashy ones,” she reminds us. So don’t be afraid to fail. Next time, just “fail better.”