5 Steps to Cope with (and Conquer) Failure

It was a powerful moment when a teary-eyed David Damberger of Engineers Without Borders admitted from the TEDx conference stage in Calgary, Alberta, that the nonprofit project he’d been working on for five years to bring clean water to poor villages in India had failed. Yet as hard as it was for him to publicly announce defeat, it triggered a critical realization for Damberger: “There’s so much failure going on and not being talked about. Opportunities to learn from these mistakes are being missed.” Since then, Damberger’s organization has embraced transparency with all of its projects and launched an annual Failure Report and website (admittingfailure.com) to share mistakes, in order to avoid repeating them within the organization, and to showcase challenges from which other nonprofits can learn.

Damberger’s initial distress is totally relatable: It’s normal for uncomfortable feelings such as shame and self-doubt to arise when projects, jobs, or relationships fail. Resisting the urge to hide from or even deny these inevitable feelings and instead finding the courage to embrace them can help you grow as a person, making you less judgmental of yourself and others. And when you appreciate the legitimate risks required for success—and the associated ups and downs—you can make savvier choices. Here are five steps to help ready you for that next time.

If at first you don’t succeed …

1. Sit with the misery
In the immediate aftermath of failure, you might feel compelled to do something, anything, to ease your feelings of shame and discomfort, whether that’s taking quick, drastic steps to right the wrong or seizing up and retreating from the world. Don’t do either. “We don’t make our best decisions when we are reactive,” says Ashley Good, founder and CEO of Fail Forward, a Canadian company that helps people and organizations learn to “fail up.” Instead, take a few minutes, a few days, or longer to practice yoga and mindfulness and sit with the facts and discomfort until you start to see what transpired with more rationality than emotion.

2. Decouple your ego from your action
After you reach a calmer state of mind, you will be able to see your action as the failure, not you. This delineation helps bring clarity, acceptance, and self-forgiveness, which can start to neutralize the sometimes-crippling shame associated with failure.

3. Ask for a recap
Tell your story to people you trust, and then ask them to repeat it back to you. Simply hearing the circumstances reframed by another party can shed new light on the facts, helping you identify your blind spots. Try to internalize these different perspectives in order to see yourself more generously and regain confidence.

4. Keep sharing
“The more you tell your story, the less shame you attach to it,” says Good. As you recap your experience, highlight the optimism gained from steps 1, 2, and 3. You should be feeling stronger, and reframing the story with your new insights will work to crystallize what you’ve learned and help you formulate your next plan of action.

5. Take risks
Set new, realistic expectations for what you are trying to achieve in your next undertaking, and then go for it! Armed with the insights, self-forgiveness, and confidence forged by your last trial and error, you’re ready to withstand new challenges, learn from them, and innovate. Remember, in order to succeed, you must risk failure.