We've all heard how important failure is for success; I've written about how to fail well, which is what CEOs like Steve Jobs, educators like Tal Ben-Shahar and the editors at The Economist advise. If we aren't failing, we're not taking risks; we're staying too cozily wrapped up in our comfort zones — a great way to never get anywhere. Failure is now seen as so important that business schools teach their students how to fail and how to deal with it productively.
But still, failing at something gives you a momentary (or all-day, maybe even all-week) ugly sensation in the pit of your stomach. When you get a rejection, it feels like an emotional wallop to the gut. It's just plain unpleasant, and most of us want to avoid that feeling. Fortunately, like many other things in life, you can actually get good at failing, so the difficult feelings it brings up no longer pack such a punch — or maybe don't even hurt at all.
The hard part is, how do you do that? In this TED Talk, "Eat, Pray, Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses how she stopped being afraid to fail with her next novel.
Share your failures — and get some perspective
Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer recently posted a CV of his failures, which was modeled on Melanie Stefan's idea originally published in Nature. His CV includes academic programs he applied to but didn't gain acceptance to, research funding he applied for and didn't get, journals he tried to publish in but failed to.
Haushofer writes: "Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective."
What would it be like to put together a resume of your failures, instead of just your successes and awards? I know mine would have fewer failures than I would like, because so many times I didn't even apply for that program or opportunity.
In this TED Talk, scientist Astro Teller discusses trying to fail and working at The Moonshot Factory, where his team would try to break things and prove their ideas were wrong.
Make failure a goal
Another way to take the sting out of failure is to do it a lot. And one way of racking up those failures is by setting a goal. That's the thinking behind the "100 rejections a year" idea for writers and other creatives. Kim Liao instituted this idea last year after she asked a good friend how she had so much success. Her friend told her: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
If you've read Stephen King's memoir about how he got his start as a writer, you'll remember how much his early work was rejected, again and again. He had a nail on his wall that he impaled each rejection upon and it soon grew fat with "No, thanks" notes. I took this advice to heart: I'm going to aim for 100 rejections between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, and I'm well on my way; I just got my first rejection today.
As part of my working towards 100 rejections, I'll be posting status updates about where I am over the next months on Facebook, to keep in mind the idea of sharing my failures. I'll be both sharing my pain and discomfort around failure, and maybe encourage someone else along the way.
Check out how much your heroes have failed
Reading about how many times authors you love have been rejected if you're a writer, or the long years of slogging through rejection by your favorite band or CEO can really help put things in perspective and give you ideas on how you too can "fail well."
In this YouTube video, author J.K. Rowling tells graduates at Harvard University's 2011 commencement ceremony about the benefits of failure:
Dr. Seuss' first book was rejected 27 times, King's bestseller "Carrie" was rejected more than 30 times (even after he was already published), and Margaret Atwood gave up on a novel and went on to write "The Handmaid's Tale" — all of which are good reminders. Even if you succeed at achieving a dream, there are always other failures that will follow unless you quit when you've reached your goal — and who does that? So you better get good at failing, even if you succeed.
If you think long enough about failure, you realize it really isn't something to avoid, since it's not an end — it's just part of the process.