Why Reflecting On Failure Is Useful

Nobody likes to fail. It hurts. At best, it hurts ‘only’ our ego, at worst it can hurt physically as well; that is if you are an athlete or casual sports enthusiast, who just fell off their horse, skis, trampoline, or missed a step somehow. As a business owner, it may also hurt you financially.

Regardless of the type of pain your failure caused, don’t ignore what happened by brushing it off as something you would like to forget as quickly as possible. In fact, the opposite is recommended: DO think about the reasons for your mistake, reminisce a little about what led up to, and caused your proverbial face-plant, and then do things differently next time.

In the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, a study published in 2011 found that moving on too quickly after a failure is a wasted learning and growth opportunity. It found that students who wrote daily diaries on some of their less proud moments were able to think about their shortcomings in a healthier way, and better accept and learn from their shortcomings than students not taking notes. The latter were more likely to stay stuck in denial and self-blaming.

The gist of the study is that when we don’t ever fail, and subsequently reflect on and learn from it, we are not growing. As the brilliant Einstein said on the law of insanity, it is “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

Other findings go a step further and suggest there may be an upside to tragedy. Before you gasp in horror, consider its merit. In what psychologists call post-traumatic growth (PTG), multiple studies have revealed that survivors of traumatic experiences or difficult challenges sometimes change profoundly. Instead of returning to their usual self after a time of recovery – thought of as resilience – they in fact change for the better. This growth comes from an active process of reflection. Deliberate rumination led study subjects to a thought-process of, ‘how can I get through this and thrive’. It resulted in greater hope and better outcomes for themselves.

The studies showed that instead of ignoring their emotional pain, it helped to acknowledge their sadness, anger, pain, and grief and working through it by being realistic about the trauma they had suffered, and what maybe adaptive lifestyle they could access in their new future. It reminds me of the adage that it is better to see yourself as a victor, not a victim.

These studies and the individuals show that setbacks (aka temporary failures) develop better ‘failure tolerance’ and are necessary for personal and professional growth to take place. Therefore, reflecting on failure is useful.

As a business owner or entrepreneur, it means analysing what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to change your approach in the next attempt. For example, great inventors like Thomas Edison and today’s Sir James Dyson succeeded in the end with amazing products because they did not give up when their prototypes at first failed to produce the outcome they had in mind. They learned from each little failure and tried again, and again, and again, each time with a new approach.

Next time you face what you first think is a failure, think of these examples and deliberately process what went wrong and why, then plan a change in your approach – and do it again.


“Dwelling on Failure”, Rosemary Counter, Dec 2015, Canadian Business – Special Report, @cdnbiz @RosemaryCounter
“Is there an upside to tragedy?”, Ginny Graves, Jul 2015, The Oprah Magazine, @O_Magazine @journalistista