We have been looking at how one of the most important life lessons not taught in current education systems around the world is how to cope with failure. That was one of the key points from Sir Ken Robinson’s hugely popular TED talk about How Schools Kill Creativity. There is a lot out there about success and how to be a success – we have even looked and discussed this in previous blog posts.

photo copyBut there is no school curriculum, or learning syllabus, as far as I know, entitled ‘How to cope with Failure.’

Here is how a writer on leadership, J. Wallace Hamilton has put it:

“The increase of suicides, alcoholism and even some forms of nervous breakdown is evidence that many people are training for success when they should be training for failure. Failure is far more common than success; poverty is more prevalent than wealth; and disappointment more normal than arrival.”

I find those sobering words and they instinctively make sense. The truth is that in life the issue is not if you will have problems, setbacks and difficulties, but how are you going to deal with them when they come? And as certain as night follows day, those setbacks will come.

What is the main difference between people who achieve and people who are average in the outcomes they produce with their lives?


It is their perception of and attitude to failure. It is the answers to questions such as these:

How do you look at life and yourself when things go wrong?
How quickly can you pick yourself up and get going again when things don’t go the way you want?
How quickly can you learn from setbacks, reflect on the role you had to play, learn from that and carry on?

The first step in learning to cope with failure is understanding how I tend to perceive it. Here are my previous attitudes to failure that I share to encourage you:

1. I feared failing.
Growing up it felt as though the worst possible thing that I could do was to fail an exam. There seemed to be no greater shame or embarrassment (on the grand scale of things that almost seems funny now, but as you can see I had a very sheltered upbringing!) Coming from a South Asian family having a good education and studying well were hugely important values, but I allowed myself to take them too seriously. In hindsight they protected me from other disasters, but from my perspective academic success was deeply rooted to my identity.

2. I misunderstood failure.
Growing up in a highly competitive boys school, the way we boys ranked and related to each other was how well we could compete. The higher your marks or the more athletic you were was a measure of how superior you were to others. We all use to play a game where we would pretend to each other how little we had studied and then go out to beat each other in getting top marks. Not doing as well as your peers was the ultimate in shame an embarrassment – to be avoided at all costs.

3. I was unprepared for failure.
Academically I did very well at school. However, the transition to university and medical school put me in contact with a group of very high performing students and a learning syllabus that was completely different to what I had up to that time been use to or knew how to handle. I found myself failing exam after exam. No matter how hard I tried I just could not keep up. I became very demotivated and discouraged. (A video on that experience is here).

The attitude and mindset I had allowed myself to develop led to a negative and pessimistic outlook on life. Fortunately I was able to learn ways to get out of  my negative ways of thinking. We have looked at some of these in previous blog posts (See The Importance of Right Attitude Part 1 and Part 2 along with Principles Governing Attitude Part 1 and Part 2) as well as the ebook that is available from my website.

One of the worst possible outcome from failure is to give up and not try. To allow our dreams and ambitions to simply die. You may well have heard the question, “If there was no possibility of failure, what would you attempt to achieve.” John Maxwell helpfully points out that this is actually a bad question. The reason for this is that it takes you down a wrong path of thinking. The fact is that there is no achievement without failure. A better question is:

If your perception and response to failure were changed, what would you attempt to achieve?

Maxwell expands this in his book ‘Failing Forward’ with the following distinctions between failing backwards and failing forwards:

Failing Backwards                                     Failing Forwards
 – Blaming others                                                           – Taking responsibility
– Repeating the same mistakes                                – Learning from each mistake
– Expecting to never fail again                                  – Knowing failure is a part of progress
– Expecting to continually fail                                   – Maintaining a positive attitude
– Accepting tradition blindly                                     – Challenging outdated assumptions
– Being limited by past mistakes                               – Taking new risks
– Thinking I am a failure                                         – Believing something did not work
– Quitting                                                         – Persevering

We are going to explore this further in future posts, but for now it would be interesting to know what were your personal experiences of how to handle failure and disappointment? What did you learn from those experiences?  It would be great to have your thoughts and comments below.