How Can you Convert Failure into a Learning Experience?


failure (Photo credit: tinou bao)

Converting failure into a learning experience sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?  Think again.

Being afraid of failure is a common human trait. For artists, the fear is usually greater as their persona is often embodied in their work for all to see. Although of course that’s not true. What we write, or paint, or sculpt, is not who we are. But it is hard not to take criticism personally. If you are unable to separate criticism of your work from criticism of yourself as a person, then you are in the wrong field.

How do we Develop a Thick Skin?

Your work is not who you are. Your actions are not who you are. But they have consequences, both good and bad. So the important thing to remember is writing a boring book does not make you a boring person. Similarly, doing a stupid think like leaving the car unlocked in a high crime neighborhood, does not make you a stupid person. You might kick yourself for losing the bag you (stupidly) left in the back seat. You are still a smart person who did a stupid thing.

How Can We Learn from our Mistakes?

We can learn from our mistakes by improving the way we write or behave. As in the example above, the chances of you leaving the car unlocked when you lose something valuable is unlikely. With your writing , or painting , or whatever, then you can pick apart what you did, and find a way to do it differently. Which takes us to the next part.

You will only learn from failure if you have an open mind ~ A.K.Andrew

How to Embrace failure.

I love making mistakes in my writing. Every time someone points out something is not working in my novel, then I know that’s a golden opportunity for me to improve what I’m working on. Be grateful when someone points out you did a lousy job, because this is your chance to learn. This is your chance to make things better.

In a recent article in,   Ed Catmull, a cofounder of Pixar, had some great insight on the nature of failure.

We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.

Six Guidelines to Embracing Failure

Be open to criticism.

Stop being defensive.

Love and learn from your mistakes.

See every hurdle as an opportunity for learning.

Failure is the road to improvement.

Be adventurous and be prepared to fail.

All those positives are fine in theory, but as Ed Catmull noted, we are human and failure is painful. But remember the resulting growth is worth the pain. Do you want to be adventurous and creative, or play it safe and go with the status quo. It’s your life, and your choice. I choose to fail.

How do you deal with failure? Is it something you dread? Can you see a positive side to failure?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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  1. I like your quote about only learning from failure if you have an open mind. Open to learning from your mistakes, that is. Sometimes I’m not even sure what is a mistake and what is a good decision.

    I’m feeling like too much on the plate right now for me to do anything creative. I have an upcoming workshop – it seems I will have to concentrate on that for right now.
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  2. When you are focused on a goal you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. We are all human and are going to make mistakes, but the biggest mistake we can make is dwelling on what went wrong. Examine it, make a notation so that the mistake is not repeated and move on. The time you spend feeling sorry for yourself is time you could have spent on a new venture
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  3. AK…thanks for such a well-written article! I love how you mention that we are not our actions or behaviors. It’s so common for us (at least I know I do it) to assume that I am what I do, and this is such a good reminder that we are all much more complicated than that. I love your 6 hints, and am tempted to print them up and post them on my bathroom mirror so I don’t forget.

  4. Great quote from Ed Catmull – thanks for finding it and sharing it. As my headteacher used to say (many, many years ago) if you haven’t made mistake, you haven’t made anything…)
    Bridget Whelan recently posted..Robert Graves on how he could afford to write poetry — Quotes for writers (and people who like quotes)My Profile

  5. Great article, AK! We definitely learn from our mistakes if we have the guts to do so. Weak people always blame others. Unfortunately that makes them stagnate.

    Personally find that accepting risk as a part of life that will always be there, unless we want to be bored have made a huge difference. Once you do that failure takes on a different role. It’s just normal, learn and move on.
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  6. Failure provides us with opportunities to learn. I view failure as a positive thing – even though it hurts when it occurs.
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  7. Hi A.K. This is such a true post and like you, I really do appreciate constructive criticism. I’m working at home by myself and often find myself wishing for someone to point out to me what I’m doing wrong – or right – Without that you keep doing the same old, same old.

  8. Hi A.K, thanks for a very balanced look at failures. One of the important ways that we lean is by process of elimination and in many cases the fastest way to eliminate the wrong options and thereby move closer to what we want, is to fail and learn from it. I am again reminded of the quote “Creativity is being unafraid to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep”
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  9. WONDERFUL quote AK! And a really great article. You know how I can relate to this as a writer…I think any form of creativity is bound to have more than it’s fair share of critics. Most are worthy of consideration and I like to approach that with the attitude…”Great! This will make me a better writer!” The snarky ones, I discard. But like Paul says above, art is knowing which ones to keep. Loved this post AK. Thanks!
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  10. My decidedly lame way of dealing with failure is to procrastinate and not work on a project at all… that being said, I love the process of opening myself up for criticism and value all of the writing workshops I’ve been a part of. The hardest part for me is always in just beginning, so I try to make sure to seek a support system that keeps me at it. It’s so natural to be defensive, but I think all writers who stick with it, eventually see the beauty of opening themselves up to advice. It can speed the process up so much.
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    • Well there is something to be said for taking a moment to absorb the failure and work out what it means. So it’s not all bad to set the project aside for a moment. Particularly if it’s a major change to a longer work. And I agree, if you persevere, how can a writer help but love getting feedback to make the work better? Getting back on the horse can be hard at times though that’s for sure. Thanks Jeri.
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  11. Great post A. K.! Between sheltering myself and failing, I choose to fail too. How else will you learn or discover new ways to do things?

    I will admit though that getting back up on your feet after failing terribly is easier said than done. The best first step is to allow yourself to feel the pain, to cry, and let your body and mind heal, so to speak. Once you’re ready, take baby steps till you’re able to start over again.
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    • Thank you so much Stef. Happy to hear you choose to fail too! I think you’re absolutely right thought to absorb what the failure means, and allow yourself to heal can often be a necessary step to moving forward. But the important thing is to actually get to those baby steps , and know you’re stronger for the experience, hard as it might be. Thank you for stopping by:-)
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  12. I consider failure as a way to make me aware of my strengths and weaknesses. If the failure was because of my weakness, I learn how to overcome that opportunity. If failure is because of my strength, then I need to keep my temperament in track. This is one thing I tell my kids constantly about – do not fear failure. Take risks. Learn lessons. Live life.
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    • I love that Eileen – Take risks.Learn lessons. Live Life. Pretty much sums it up. But you make a good point that there is a difference in whether we fail because of our strengths or weaknesses, and it’s important to know why , as it does effect how we respond and move forward. Very insightful comment. Thank you so much:-)
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  13. The most important thing is to keep pushing forward, unless of course, you are a nuclear missile safety inspector. Some failures have really big lessons attached to them.
    Jon Jefferson recently posted..Shards of GlassMy Profile

    • Well , thank goodness none of us are nuclear missile safety inspectors, but you make a good point that in real life there can be very serious consequences to failure. Doing a complete rewrite of a novel is one thing, but many things can be dangerous mistakes. That said, however bad the mistake, I still think the important thing is to learn from it. Thanks Jon.
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  14. Hi A. K. thanks for helping us to separate ourselves from our work. You are right too many of us see our work as who we are and not just one aspect of our over all personality. I find that i respond to failure differently depending on the impact. when I fail to meet financial goals it bothers me more because I feel the responsibility of seeing to the family’s welfare. when i mess up on the website, or when a friend tells me a blog post could have been better; I am all about doing it better next time. as a matter of fact the first post on my new blog contains a happy accident. somehow i got a photo mislabeled. I put a picture of a train instead of the one of me working at my kitchen table. everyone seems to think i was going for a little engine that could reference, so I decided to just leave the photo. of course i do wish I could figure out how to make it smaller. smile thanks for the reminder and take care, max
    maxwell ivey recently posted..The story beginsMy Profile

    • Thanks Maxwell. I think you, like Jon, make a good point that in real life, some mistakes can have major consequences. But in our creative pursuits, it’s almost always a beneficial learning experience. I love your story about the engine photo. I think sometimes artistic mistakes are the ones that can great really great art works. Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
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  15. A.K. — maybe we’re too quick to label a misstep as a failure. We’re too quick to get down on ourselves. If we’re taking a risk and trying something new and we hit some bumps on the road that isn’t failure. That’s the process of problem solving. Discovering what works and doesn’t work. Let’s stop beating ourselves up when something doesn’t work on the first try. That isn’t failure.
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  16. You make an excellent point Jeanette. A first misstep is not the same as failure, and perhaps we need to first learn the difference to know how to deal with it. Either way, I’m totally with you on not beating ourselves up when things don’t work out . Perseverance is often hard creatively ( or anyway actually) but it’s a better road than giving up when things go wrong. Knowing when to stop is also important. Gosh, life is complicated isn’t it? :-)) thanks so much for your insightful comment .
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  17. Thought provoking post A.K.; the contents of which I am guilty of sometimes. I like criticism sometimes and sometimes I get all defensive. I very much took to your post as a wake up call and will do better in the future. I have never been afraid of failure just not great at having others tell me. I can do better. Thanks.
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  18. Fascinating post, A.K. As a hybrid/self-published author who must attempt many things I’ve never done before, I’ve had many trials and tribulations along the way. However, I dislike the word “failure” as that seems so final. I like to think of every situation as a learning opportunity, and as long as I’ve learned something from the experience, exercise, or situation, I consider it to be a success.
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    • Thanks Doreen, and you make an an excellent point. Learning as we go in all these unknown territories is quite different than failure per se. Cricket, there’s a lot of things to learn in this life , that’s for sure. But then that’s part of the adventure. You’ve done amazing things over the past year, so you should feel proud of yourself. I know I do. Thanks for stopping by& I hope the blog tour’s been going really well for you:-)
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  19. “Be grateful when someone points out you did a lousy job, because this is your chance to learn.”

    This and your six points really spoke to me. I had a really bad day yesterday and could’ve used these points then. Really thankful to have found them now.
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  20. Hi A.K.
    You’re right. Some people ask, “What do you do for a living?” … as if that is the sum total of what we are about. We are so much more than what we do. We are human ‘beings’ not ‘do’-ings. I think everyone has the capacity to learn from their mistakes. That learning creates valuable experience. The more sensitive among us have a difficult time of dealing with criticism because it can be perceived as harsh, but constructive criticism urges personal growth.

    All the best!
    William Butler recently posted..The Wisdom of Suffering…My Profile

    • I love that phrase ‘ we are human beings not do-ings’ – brilliant. It’s such a go to question, but then in a way it’s the easiest one to answer. The rest comes in time when you get to know a person. As for criticism, sometimes we need harsh, as long as the person isn’t just being mean. Most people know in their own minds where they can improve, and learning to do that can be very liberating. Thanks so much for joining the discussion.
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  21. What a great article. If there is on constant in the human existence, it must be failure. Learning to deal with failure must then be something we must master.
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  22. Great reminder. when I feel like failed, I wanted to live in a cave, away from everyone. It will take some time to think about it and find the reason for failure and to create a strategy to move on.
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  23. Hey A.K I loved this post. I see a link with mine for this week in some way as failure and fear sometimes go together as you pointed out. I think in today’s world people have become more and more afraid of failure due to the magnified reporting of those who are successful. You are correct in saying one must separate themselves from their failures and acts of stupidity because it does not define them. But sometimes I will admit even myself, it is hard as you cannot help but kick yourself.
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    • Thanks so much for stopping by Welli. Our posts most definitely have a connection this week. I like the point you make here about the fear of failure being amplified by the media driven notice of success of others. The culture of ‘why not me?’ and overnight millionaires in the industries all heighten that atmosphere. I agree that, the theory still stands that we are not our failures, but the reality is as you say, very hard to separate the two. We just have to keep the theory in mind and just keep on keeping on.
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  24. Failure is the best way to learn! In fact someone who succeeds “all the time” isn’t really learning anything.
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  25. It is so easy to focus on what hasn’t worked. When we do we miss the very important lesson that can come from it. That is a very big mistake, We need to let go and not dwell on what went wrong but rejoice it the knowledge we’ve gained and what went right. Focusing on a goal can help us prevent that. Spending time feeling sorry for ourselves takes us away from what we could succeed at. Just my muddled brain thinking out loud. 🙂
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  26. I like the 6 guidelines on overcoming failure. Every failure is a learning opportunity.
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  27. Embracing failure is counter-intuitive, but very necessary. It’s important to step outside of our comfort zone and take chances. Fear tends to paralyze us and we don’t know what we’re capable of if we don’t try. And yes, that means navigating and learning from mistakes.
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  28. Thanks for this article. I want to be adventurous and creative. I don’t want to follow the crowd. I have to remember this every time I try and play it safe.
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  29. The first “thick skin” in my opinion is the core or foundational piece to this issue. It seems to often take a long time because we get in our own way. As you way, we might be confusing that our work is who we are. Maybe it’s because we spend way too much time on average doing, instead of being. When I am just being, actually, any failure seems to dissipate more quickly. Thanks AK!
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  30. A very matured thought, Andrew. Handling criticism is an art and only a few know how to do this. Seeing every hurdle as a challenge can make a huge difference.
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  31. Very appropriate post for me right now. I do try to learn from my mistakes. The issue for me is that I tend to dwell on them for all the wrong reasons.
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  32. failures are stepping stones are success ,if we face any failure we have to learn something from our failures .we shouldn’t do those mistakes next time. with your post more people will get motivated and get success in their life’s .thank you for your post..
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  33. That’s a good way of putting it Harish – stepping stones to success. It’s hard to learn by our mistakes, but worth the effort. Thanks so much for stopping by.
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  34. Well said A.K.! Failure is an opportunity to learn. It isn’t always easy, but I try to have a sense of humour about my failures. I’m usually the first person to laugh or make a joke about myself if I do something silly. When I take a wrong turn in the car my daughter is now so used to my response that she immediately says, “Admiring new new gardens mom?”
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  35. Great article. I usually dwell on my mistakes for too long. Observe, reflect, learn, move on 🙂

  36. Thanks so much. Glad you found it helpful. Hard not to beat ourselves up sometimes. I like your mantra of observe, reflect,learn, move on. Good one:-)

  37. Hi A.K,
    What a ready-witted and well penned post.
    I nod in agreement with you in many of your insights over here…
    Particularly when you say that for artists, the fear is usually greater as their persona is often embodied in their work for all to see…
    The best way to succeed or at least to enjoy the creative process is to try to remain faithful to ourselves whilst trying somehow to get along with the ‘audience’. In this sense, as you have well highlighted, being able to separate criticism of your work from criticism of yourself as a person, is the main point (an also maybe the most engaging challenge). At the end, it is an issue that requires balance!.
    Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you, Aquileana 🙂

  38. Thankyou so much Aquileana. It is definitely hard to separate out the work from the personal, but essential to do so. I think you have summed it up well in saying that the key is balance. Thanks for stopping by:-)