It's hard to avoid the current trend that touts failure as something to embrace, to learn from — maybe even to celebrate. There are so many books on the subject, you could start reading now and not finish them all for years.
The gist of most of the advice is that failure isn't something to run from, but to embrace.
But when you look failure in the face, it feels absolutely awful. And while books galore and helpful friends will tell you how this is a learning experience, it's the rare person who can feel just ducky about losing out on a much-wanted opportunity, coming in last place, or falling flat on their face before reaching the finish line.
In fact, most of us still try to avoid failure — which often means not taking a risk or going for a difficult goal. So, how do we get comfortable with failure so the fear of it won't keep us from reaching for our dreams?
Like anything else, practice makes failing easier. For me, making failure a goal helped me get over the fear of it. As a writer, I used to feel awful every time one of my story ideas was rejected. Then I heard about Kim Liao's idea of aiming for 100 rejections a year. In 2017 I did just that — and guess what? I published more than I ever had before.
I also got a lot more rejections, but both the successes and failures were because I was sending out a lot more pitches. Personally, it became much easier to pitch when the point was the rejections, but it's not as if I failed less. I simply practiced failing, and my skin got thicker.
Another way to look failure straight in the face is by writing a failure resume or CV.
Like social media, where we usually only see our friends' "highlight reel" (the cute baby but not the sleepless nights or times when there was a diaper explosion), when we look at others' resumes, we get intimidated and think how ours doesn't measure up. But even the most accomplished people have plenty of failure behind them — we just don't see it.
Neurobiologist Melanie Stefan felt this acutely as a scientist, so she put together a flip-side of her regular CV (which of course boasted about her good grades, PhD, and published papers). Her failure CV is a model of what we could all do.
"My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed," writes Stefan in a column for Nature.com.
For example, Stefan's CV includes this information:
PhD, 2005-2009 EMBL-EBI, Cambridge, UK
But her failure note says: "Only PhD programme I was actually admitted to."
CV entry: Postdoctoral Fellow, 2010-2013 California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, US
Failure note: "Applied for four fellowships, received only one. Lab experiments did not go as planned."
Stefan suggests keeping a draft on which you log, casually but regularly, "every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper."
"It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist..." Stefan writes.
If we all did this (scientists or not), we might see the connection between and reasons for our successes and our failures.
And that's the point. Not to dwell on what we got wrong, but to use that information to both look at failure and realize it's really okay, and also to use our failures for another purpose: as learning tools.
"Falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome," writes Tim Herrera in The New York Times, where he also advocates creating a failure resume.
The point is to be real — with ourselves and about how the world works. In a culture that feels less grounded in reality with every passing year, a failure resume is a reminder that life isn't perfect, or easy, and that nobody's career is as straightforward as a listing of their accomplishments would indicate.
Being real means taking an honest, critical, but also kind look at what we didn't get right, and then doing our best to change what we can. "Instead of focusing on how that failure makes you feel, take the time to step back and analyze the practical, operational reasons that you failed. Did you wait until the last minute to work on it? Were you too casual in your preparation? Were you simply out of your depth?" writes Herrera.
Release those factors that are out of your control — and yes, there are many. After all, failure could be due to factors that have nothing to do with your hard work. It's terrible, but true.
As comedian Emily Winter writes, "I can send off a great script or writing packet, or have a killer set at a packed stand-up show, but if the decision maker happens to be grumpy, or is in the bathroom during my set, or already read a similar submission, or is pals with another candidate, or thinks my look isn't trending, or used to date someone with a similar name, or thinks I'm too old, or too young, or too liberal, or too conservative, or gets laid off right before she intended to hire me, I'm back to square one, wondering what I did wrong."
So, practice being okay with failure, and turning your failures into lessons learned. And yes, sometimes we have to learn those lessons more than once. That's part of life too. You can also practice — actively practice — letting go of what you can't change. And keep moving forward.