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04 Sep 2017
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Three secrets to failing well

We all fail from time to time. But as Kenny has discovered, sometimes your hardest lessons can be the ones you end up valuing the most.

You hear the expression all the time: embrace failure. What a stupid thing to say, right? If like me, you've royally screwed something up before —an exam, a project, or a relationship— you'll know one thing for sure. Failure sucks.

But think about it for a minute. Did the experience do anything for you? In my case, failing a university paper meant that I spent about a month feeling sorry for myself. I played too many tracks by The National, far too loudly. I woke early in the morning several times, repeating my basic error over and over in my head.

And finally, I pretty much dusted myself off, forgave myself, and learnt from the experience. After that, not only did I pass every exam, but my marks also improved, significantly. Strangely, the knocks I took from that experience gave me more in terms of lessons than most of my successes ever had.

Should we then go looking for failure? Of course not. But when it comes, here are some ways to let failure remake you, not break you.

1. Accept it

Next time you are in a job interview, ask your future boss about a time that they failed. Pay attention to their answer: it can say a lot about a person.

As experts note, the best way to make failure a positive is to start by admitting it. "By admitting it, you've literally set yourself free of the weight of it," notes writer Jeremy Bloom.

If your future boss can't name a failure, think carefully about taking the job. How much can you learn from someone who can't admit to and learn from his or her errors?

2. Write Down the Lessons

So you blew it. What did you learn? Writing down the immediate lessons from the experience —with the sting still fresh in your mind— can have real benefits.

You might eventually find the experience useful on a different front. For example: ever heard of the pharma company Pfizer? Maybe not, but I bet you've heard of their most successful failures.

In the early 1990s, when testing a drug called UK92480 for angina, Pfizer researchers discovered that while it failed to relax blood vessels, it did succeed in a different way. Voila, the magical multi-billion-dollar "little blue pill" that is Viagra, was born.

Just imagine if those researchers hadn't learned from their failure.

3. Test and Learn

Back to your job interview. What sort of answer would you like to hear from that future boss? Regardless of what he or she has failed at in the past, the ideal environment to work in could be one where people can fail safely.

In other words, consider working in a place where you can lose a few battles, in order to win the war. As we learn from research into original thinkers for instance, often the people who go about their task in a seemingly haphazard way can be those who really chased the big prize in the end.

And if not? Well, there's always the next challenge — and a few more albums by The National.

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