“What would you do if you could not fail?” ask countless inspirational coffee mugs, throw pillows, and greeting cards. As we tend to think of success as inherently good and failure as inherently bad, it’s easy to understand why nobody wants to feel like a failure. If given a choice, the gut response for many of us would be to live a life without it. But when you really think about it, you learn a lot more from your failures than your successes. Failures teach us; they help us grow and change. While we cannot rid ourselves of failure forever, we can make ourselves failure immune. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, reveal how we can reframe our failures so that instead of hindering us, they help us thrive.
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Part of building up failure immunity is reframing the fundamental way we think about life. For many of us, (myself included), we get stuck in viewing the track of our life as leading us to an end goal instead of taking pleasure and recognizing our achievements along the way. When we get hung up on the end results, happiness remains just out of our reach, hinged as it is, to inconsequential markers of failure and success.
Burnett and Evans use the philosopher James Carse’s theory about how life is composed of either finite or infinite games to reframe this dysfunctional view on life. A finite game is played by the rules in order to win, (like baseball), and an infinite game is played with the rules for the joy of continuing to play—like love or learning how the world is put together. When we think of life as an infinite game with no winners or losers, we view failure differently and become immune. This doesn’t mean that you won’t experience pain, loss, or setbacks. They just won’t make you feel like less of a person.
Turning Failure into Growth
“Failure is the raw material of success, and the failure reframe is a process of converting that raw material into real growth,” explain Burnett and Evans. Failure reframe is a simple, three-step exercise that the authors recommend practicing once or twice a month until you’ve established a new way of thinking. To get started, download a reframing worksheet at www.designingyour.life.
1. Log your failures. Begin by listing the ways you’ve messed up. You can start by looking back over the past week, month, or year, or even make an “All-Time Failure Hits List.”
2. Categorize your failures. The next step is to sort your failings into one of three categories that will help you easily identify growth opportunities.
a. The first category is screwups. These are things you normally get right, so there’s nothing to really learn from here. Acknowledge, apologize, and move on.
b. The second is weaknesses. These are failings brought on by mistakes you make over and over, things you have likely worked to improve as much as possible. Burnett and Evans note that they aren’t suggesting you prematurely cave and accept mediocrity but that there “isn’t much upside to changing your stripes.” These are the kinds of failures where avoidance of certain situations that prompt them are more effective than trying to improve.
c. The final category, growth opportunities, is where you can really learn about yourself. These are the mistakes that didn’t have to happen and have actionable fixes. These are the failures where you should spend your energy.
3. Identify growth insights. Now that you’ve identified the failings where you have the most to learn, you can take the time to analyze what went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening in the future. By the same token, recognizing failures that you could not have prevented as either screwups or weaknesses saves you a lot of unproductive agonizing and beating yourself up. By training yourself to reframe failure, you’ll be building up your immunity a little bit at a time.
Failure Feeds Success
For the last six years, I’ve been a mentor to undergraduates in my alma mater’s English degree program. I’m nearly a decade into my career post-graduation, and where I am today looks a whole lot different than what I expected it to look like—and that’s great. The students I speak to always remark on what a comfort that is—that one decision doesn’t make or break your life.
When it comes to our careers, especially early on, we get stuck on what we think we should be doing—that what we majored in as an undergrad should and will define the rest of our lives. My first real job out of college turned out to be a nightmare, my second a success until I felt drained by office politics. The third incarnation of my career is where I am happiest—for now—though I could never have arrived here without the skills and experiences I learned from the previous jobs. Without those “failures,” I never would have trusted myself to take the leap to freelancing, nor would I have moved to a city that made me happier and healthier.
The same goes for other aspects of our lives, like romantic relationships. For the most part, we do not give up on finding our life partner after one relationship doesn’t work out. I still remember thinking as I sat and laughed with my now-husband on our first date, “He’s all the good parts of all my old boyfriends, and none of the bad.” If I hadn’t had so many relationships that “failed,” I might never have recognized what a gem my husband was.
Many types of failures made up these big life events—some screwups, some weaknesses, and a few real moments that helped me evolve into the next version of myself. I know that as I continue to try things and continue to face setbacks, I will learn about myself and what will make me happy. I am not failure immune just yet, but I am working hard at it because I keep learning, over and over, that what seems terrible at first can lead to some truly great things.
So while you think of ways to reframe your failures and work towards becoming failure immune, think also of your successes—and how failure may have contributed to them. When you begin to realize how setbacks and pain have ultimately given you the tools you needed to make meaningful change and a happy life, you’ll stop looking at the roadblocks and potholes you hit along the way as bad things. You may not be able to eradicate failure from life’s journey, but this is surely the next best thing.