Sad student in the library

Learning From Failure: How Rejection Can Fuel Academic and Creative Growth

Thinking about failure is hard. It can be uncomfortable to think of those times when things didn’t work out the way we wanted. But failure can be a stepping-stone, or even a necessary part, of success. Perhaps one of the best-known examples of this mindset became a Nike advert, in which Michael Jordan details his misses and losses, concluding, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

However disappointing a failure might be, learning how to view it not as an end, but as a waypoint on a journey, allows you to turn even a failure into a positive. And when you can do that, failure becomes an opportunity to build resilience, prove your persistence, and, most importantly, adapt in preparation for success.

So, how can you use failure to your advantage?

1. Make failure a learning opportunity

Perhaps the most important thing to do with any failure is to absorb the lessons it offers. It might be that failure is inevitable, not everything you do will be successful or turn out the way you want. However, you can always take steps that maximize your chances of success, and mitigate the impact when things go wrong.

Usually, those lessons are easy to find. A poor result on a test or assessment might, if you are being honest with yourself, be down to poor preparation. But if it’s not, think about why things went wrong, did you misunderstand concepts, or did you make mistakes in the application of them? Or did you simply misunderstand the question you were being asked? Be honest, there is nothing to be gained by making excuses for yourself.

Develop the habit of always learning from failures, even if they seem small and inconsequential. When learning from failures is second nature, it’s much easier to do, and you get more from it when there are essential lessons to be learned.

Finally, make it a priority to get feedback whenever it’s possible. Most people are more than happy to offer feedback, letting you know what let you down or what might have improved your chances. That external view can help calibrate your own assessments.

2. Grow from failure

Understanding why you failed is a vital first step. But it’s only the first step. You have to turn that knowledge into practical action.

Take those lessons and adapt your approach. This might sometimes be a simple correction that you have to make, but it might also mean rethinking much of what you do. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once commented, “all overnight success takes about ten years,” but it is also true in reverse: the moment of failure might be sudden, but the build-up slow.

Even a small change in habits can make a big difference, doing something for just six minutes a day, for example, amounts to the equivalent of a typical working week over a year. Your analysis might reveal that regular sessions of revision or practice will be transformative. Or that the way you work means you need to start much earlier to allow subconscious processes time for your creatively to flourish or knowledge to consolidate.

Again, be honest, but also realistic with yourself. Set yourself goals and targets that are attainable, and reward yourself when you meet them. But make sure you save the big reward for when you finally succeed!

3. Prepare to get the most from failure

Failure, or the chance of failure, is a necessary component of progress. Every business launches, every experiment starts, and every piece of work begins, with the risk that it will not succeed. And if no-one took that risk, we would never move forward. By acknowledging the risk exists, you can reduce the chance of failing, but also be prepared to benefit if it happens.

First, build your resilience. Have strategies to deal with failure, and make sure you have a support network. Don’t forget about the psychological impact, either. Your network should not just help you learn and move on, but also be able to offer comfort and consolation when you just want a sympathetic ear.

Develop a growth mindset. This is not just about looking for positives, but is about having the certain knowledge that growth and improvement are always possible. That means that even if your failure is a genuine setback, you recognize its place as part of a longer journey.

Finally, embrace opportunities, even if they risk failure. Be prepared to take chances and recognize the potential that is in them, whatever the outcome. And celebrate every win you experience, however small. Even a project that ends in failure will have smaller successes along the way. Recognizing this isn’t just about making you feel better, it helps with your analysis of the situation and the changes you might want to make.

Bonus tip: benefit from failure without failing

You can learn a lot about failure, but you can also learn a lot by thinking about failures that haven’t happened.

A premortem, an English and Latin portmanteau meaning ‘before death’, is a management technique in which a team imagines their project’s failure and identify what would have caused it. Its success is because it stops people saying, “I knew this would happen,” afterwards and instead giving them the chance to say, “I worry this will happen,” to prevent a failure.

And there’s no reason you can’t apply the same process yourself. Imagine your next big assignment or project has failed; as well as being depressed, ask yourself why. You’ll find you often already know issues that you need to address.

Celebrate your failures!

There is no success story that doesn’t have a prequel of failure, often lots of them!

Everyone’s life will, inevitably, include failures, big and small. The challenge we all face, is how we use those failures, and whether we can maximize the benefit from them to ensure that our future successes are that much greater.