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On Learning from Failure

Dear Future You,

You’ll find no shortage of useful aphorisms about the value of failure. They’re probably all true. Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned have come from failing, and I’ve done a lot of it over the years. Most people who have been successful will probably tell you how important it was for them to “fail well” or “make better mistakes tomorrow” or some equally novel construction. The only problem with this failure advice is that it’s often short on details of how to turn failures into constructive learning and future success.

If you truly desire to learn from a failure, you must first admit to the mistakes that YOU made – don’t look for the things other people did wrong or circumstances over which you have no control. It will always be tempting (and easier) to look for blame outside of yourself — it will make you feel better (momentarily) by protecting your ego from humiliation and shame.

Don’t let yourself fall into that trap because you’ll never learn from your mistakes. You must take ownership of your own shortcomings. If you focus on things other people did wrong or circumstances you can’t control, you’ll never find ways to improve YOURSELF. You can only gain value from failure if you learn something that is genuinely true that can help you make better choices in the future.

Be brutally honest with yourself about how you came up short, but don’t beat yourself up over it. Accept it as a mistake. Allow yourself permission to be imperfect. Acknowledge the reality of how you failed, and try to understand why you made the choices you made.

Understand that you didn’t fail or make mistakes because you are a bad person. There are valid reasons why people make mistakes, and inherent “badness” is not one of them. You made a bad choice or choices because you didn’t have what you needed to make better choices. Sometimes that is as simple as not having all the information you needed. Other times it is more complicated, like when you don’t have the self-confidence or security to make the right choice because it seems risky, and so you make decisions out of fear. When you separate mistakes from feelings of “inherent badness,” insecurity, self-doubt, and fear — and realize that you failed because you were missing something you needed — it becomes a lot easier to recognize what you need in order to perform better in the future.

What would you have needed to make better choices?

Learning from failure only works when you reflect honestly on what went wrong and unpack why it happened based on your actions. Once you know that, forgive yourself for making the error, and then focus on the things you’ve identified you’ll need to make better choices in the future.

Once you can do this for yourself, it will be easier to do this for others as well, which will lead to being less judgmental of others and genuinely helping others to work constructively through their own failures.

Renfully yours.

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Renfully yours.

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