The Art of Failure

A recent article by Greg Bruce in the Canvas Magazine on the “Fear of Failure: why is the F word such a bad thing” (19 January, 2019) caught my eye, as the discussion on failure and how to overcome it is something I come across a lot in my work with clients.


Bruce shares the story of squash great Peter Nicol, who dominated the sport between 1998 and 2004, only to arrive at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games in poor form and well past his best.


Nicols played well despite this and reached the final against the clear favourite and number one ranked Australian player, David Palmer.


Despite all Palmers’ advantages, Nicol dominated the game and won gold to end his career on a winning high but what most people didn’t realise is that the night before the tournament, Nicol had made a bold and dramatic move to change the way he gripped the handle of his racquet. A grip that had been the hallmark of his success previously.


As it happens, that was the move that made all the difference, as the change in grip gave him access to his drop shot, which negated Palmer’s power game.



The point of this example, I believe, is to demonstrate that people who are considered ‘successful’ in their ‘game’ often bypass the fear of failure and take calculated risks. As Bruce points out in the article, if Nicol had “not taken any risk and lost the match, would that have been any better?”.


And more importantly, it’s interesting to note that this was not the first time Nicol took such risks. He was known for doing things differently and for constantly asking what he could do differently in order to stay at the top of his game. He had the mindset of constantly learning, changing, evolving.


That, according to the head of innovation at High Performance Sport NZ Dr Stafford Murray is what the best in the world often do “That’s their different mindset. They’re not scared of failure.”


This acknowledgement of taking risks, learning and evolving is further exemplified by another sporting great, Michael Jordan, whose famous quote says it all:


“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

An example of powerful, unstoppable belief and a determined mindset!


Fear of failure prevents us from achieving goals and living our best lives


Another type of mindset that is a hot topic at the moment is the growth mindset, and Bruce makes reference to recent research in the education field, where failure is seen as a learning tool for further growth.


Stanford University, professor of mathematics Jo Boaler wrote in a 2013 article “When we think about why something is wrong, we create new connections in the brain which make it grow.” The key idea again here is that mistakes should be seen as opportunities for learning and brain development. The problem is that many students fail to take risks in their learning because of the embarrassment of getting it wrong in front of their peers. This is particularly true of older students.


Indeed, my experience working with children from the age of 1 to 13 corroborates this fact. While a one-year-old has no problem falling over a number of times before they finally take their first steady steps, a teenager who is not good at a particular sport would rather sit on the sidelines and hand their teacher a note for sickness than make mistakes and feel embarrassed in front of their peers. This is also true in the classroom and especially in academic subjects such as mathematics.


Learning from mistakes is innate



Young children intrinsically know that in order to learn, they actually have to make mistakes. It’s part of the process of learning. For older children, I agree with Bruce’s assertion that it is important to foster a classroom culture where mistakes are expected and encouraged. A safe space where the psychological risk of failure is reduced. The article talks of a classroom model where instead of the teacher modelling the process to get the correct answer, the students first commit to an answer, get it wrong and have the instruction come afterwards. This is in fact what happens in some classrooms internationally.


And in my experience, this is exactly what is happening in many schools around New Zealand, particularly in response to the work of Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset. Dweck’s research and book (The New Psychology of Success) delves into the whole concept of fostering a mindset where it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them. Where asking questions and getting is wrong shouldn’t make you feel dumb and useless, rather inquiring and curious and willing to have a go. Where failure is seen as an opportunity rather than a disaster. Dweck, in my mind, rightly points out that people with a Fixed Mindset avoid difficult things because of the fear of failure and getting it wrong and contrasts this with a Growth Mindset which allows us to step up to challenges and take on the tough stuff.


Reflection and Reframe


So, when it comes to failure and mistakes – what’s the best way of dealing with it?


Well, firstly there is reflection. The process of standing back from whatever you are doing and thinking about it from different perspectives. This is tricky to do on your own. As Bruce points out “we often don’t know when we’re doing poorly and even when we do, we don’t necessarily have any idea how to fix it.”


As a coach, reflection features heavily in my work with clients. Through the process of coaching, clients are able to reflect on their situation and get perspective on their mistakes and see them in a different light. This understanding into oneself and how we process our lives can be extremely insightful and the added self-awareness can lead to major personal growth.


Another approach used often in coaching is the reframe. What is failure anyway? Simply redefining the way you see failure can help you over it or at least not let it hold you back. What if the job you interviewed for and didn’t get was a sign that you weren’t on the right path? What if the fact that you failed your apprenticeship was more a reflection that the work you were doing was something someone else wanted you to do rather than your own passion? What if you could reframe failure as learning:



Sha Perera [Career Progression Coach - www.emergeandtransform.com]