THE BLOG

The 4 Keys to Learning From Failure

10/10/2013 08:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Failure is supposed to be a great teacher. But if that's true, why are so many of us unable to acquire the knowledge this "great teacher" has to impart? Why do we keep failing?

The problem is failure might be a great teacher, but it is also a cryptic one. Figuring out its lessons is no easy task, especially when we're still nursing a bruised ego and swimming in frustration, disappointment, and demoralization, not to mention the occasional embarrassment, resentment, and hopelessness.

To be able to learn from our failures, we need a way to decode the "teachable moments" hidden within them. We need a method for deducing what exactly those lessons are and how they can improve our chances of future success.

The following guidelines will help you analyze your failures and identify specific issues you need to correct when pursuing goals or tasks going forward. In all fairness, they will require some thinking and soul searching, so feel free to give yourself a little time to recover from the emotional blow of a fresh failure before you begin.

1. Reevaluate your planning: How much time did you spend planning the best way to achieve your goal or task before you started? How much thought did you give to anticipating hurdles or problems that might arise and to figuring out how you would handle them if they did? The vast majority of us spend little if any time on this kind of planning, despite the likelihood of our running into obstacles and unexpected circumstances. In the future, make sure to plan your general strategy, consider potential setbacks, and figure out how to overcome them, before you begin.

2. Reevaluate your preparation: Here again is a step too many of us skip despite it being a rather crucial one. For example, consider someone whose goal is to get healthy by joining a gym and going three times a week. Her plan can easily get derailed if the babysitter cancels and she has no alternate childcare arrangements. Preparing backup childcare ahead of time would allow her to get to the gym more consistently and to get into the habit more easily, which in turn will increase her chances of persisting toward her goal.

As another example, consider how often we begin diets without stocking the house with healthy foods and getting rid of unhealthy ones. In the future, make sure to prepare by putting elements in place that increase your likelihood of success and minimize the likelihood of setbacks.

3. Reevaluate your execution: Was your effort consistent, or did you experience lags in your work ethic, motivation, or your general mindset? Go back and assess when and why any drops in effort occurred. Identifying when you got demoralized or demotivated, and which external circumstances derailed your efforts, will allow you to anticipate such events and plan how you to address them in the future (for example, by building in special incentives at critical junctures and brainstorming ways to manage external disruptions).

4. Focus on variables in your control: Failure can make us feel passive and helpless and lead us to believe that we'll never succeed no matter what we do or try. However compelling such feelings are, they are no more than perceptual distortions -- tricks our minds play on us after experiencing failure.

The truth is, we always have more control over things than we realize. For example, we might feel despondent if we failed to get a promotion because our sales figures did not measure up for the third year in a row. We tried harder than ever before yet even our best efforts were not sufficient -- what more can we do?

Plenty!

We could take a workshop to beef up our sales skills or a seminar to improve our presentations. We could become more knowledgeable about our clients, spend more time cultivating relationships with potential customers, improve our networks, cultivate stronger relationships with management within our company, or figure out other ways in which we could take initiative and prove our worth, all of which are in our control.

As long as you know where and how to look, failure can indeed be a great teacher. These four guidelines are always the first place to start your search, as within them you are bound to find valuable lessons that will help you succeed in the future.

For more by Guy Winch, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.