How You React to Failure Determines How Quickly You’ll Succeed



Show me the person who has never failed and you’ll be showing me a person who has never accomplished anything.

Failure is a natural part of life. We all have to go through it at one point or another. It can’t be helped.

You may not be able to change the fact that failures and setbacks will happen once in a while, but you can determine how you react to them. And it turns out that how you react to failure matters a lot.

The Typical Reaction to Failure

When I was growing up, I played little league baseball. I was an average player and was reliable enough to get a hit or two most games.

That is, until one day.

In one game I made several errors and failed to get a base hit. I played terribly; nothing was going my way.

I took it hard and questioned my abilities as a baseball player.

Every game after that was just as hard. In most games I was happy to not mess up.

I had gone from an average player to a terrible player in an extremely short time and I didn’t know why.

Several games later, a friend of mine also had a terrible game. He didn’t get any base hits and made an error on the field that cost us the game.

When I asked him about it, he shrugged it off. He said that the day was just a blip for him and that one bad day doesn’t say anything about his overall skills. In short, he thought of himself as a great player who simply had a bad day.

The next game, my friend had recovered from his setback and was batting like normal.

This story highlights the two ways to react to failure.

I reacted to my bad day by questioning my overall skills and abilities. My friend reacted to his bad day as a specific instance that didn’t say anything at all about his skills.

That difference in how you react to failure makes all the difference in reaching success. Here’s why the two differences matter:

1. Seeing failure as a reflection of yourself and your abilities

It’s natural to become a little demotivated when you experience failure. But when you see it as a reflection of your overall skills, you put that demotivation into your self-image.

Think about a beginner writer who gets a rejection letter. One way to react is to take it personally. You can doubt your abilities and see yourself simply as a bad writer.

Instead of telling yourself that the article might have been bad, you tell yourself that you are bad.

When you think you’re not good, you doubt yourself and lose self-confidence. That’s destructive thinking. That means the next time you make an attempt to succeed, you’ll be at a disadvantage.

2. Seeing failure as a specific instance

This approach means you doubt how good the particular action is – not yourself. That’s a lot less destructive.

The failure will still be a little demotivating, but seeing it as a comment on a specific instance means you can bounce back quicker.

Now imagine a different writer who gets a rejection letter in the mail. He figures the topic might not have been interesting enough or he needs to put more work into it next time.

In this instance, he puts the failure on the article, not on who he is. It’s easier for him to move past the failure and put it into the past.

Bouncing Back From Failure

These different approaches to failure were the reason I had such a hard time bouncing back from my bad day at the ballpark and my friend didn’t.

I took the bad day personally which meant I had a hard time shaking off self-doubt and the loss of confidence.

Bringing those negative thoughts with me impaired my performance.

My friend could see the failure as a specific instance and could brush it off. He left those demotivating thoughts in the past with that day instead of bringing it with him to the next game. So they were gone the next time he got back up to bat.

No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, there will always be setbacks and failures. This is not something you can control. What you can control is your reaction. If you don’t take it personally and consider it a blip on your way to success, you’ll find success comes to you a lot faster.
photo credit: Gustty

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  1. I think you’ve raised a really good point. It’s the outlook and attitude you have which will determine how successful you are in the future rather than anything else.

    The tricky bit is being conscious of this in the moment of failure and changing your outlook when you need to. But with time and practice any habit can be changed.

    • That is a tricky bit. In most cases when you go through a setback, the instinct is to take it personally. That seems to be the default mode for most people.

      Your right that it’s a habit and takes practice. Like most things, you can change this so setbacks won’t make you worse off in the future.

  2. Wow, this really resonated with me. I can see this in myself when I play Tennis. Once I start hitting poorly, I begin to think to myself that maybe, just maybe I’m a terrible player. Then I just let it sit there and continue to beat myself up every time I hit poorly. I need to remind myself that these moments do not reflect me or my overall skills.

    • Isn’t that crazy how that happens? All it takes is a little bit of doubt to affect your game.

      That’s interesting that this happens to you playing tennis. It seems people who play sports are affected by this a lot. I know it happens in a lot of other areas too, but I’ve heard a lot of sports stories where this takes place.

  3. Excellent post Steve! How we react to failure says so much about us. We can either accept it for what it is, shrug it off as a blip, learn from our mistakes, or we can whine and bitch, blame ourselves or others, and allow it to ruin us.

    Failing is inevitable. If you aren’t failing at anything then you aren’t really trying anything. Every failure is a lesson, but only if we’re willing to be taught.

    BTW, we’re post buddies — I just posted an article on failure myself.


    • Sometimes it can ruin us. It seems as if there is a slippery slope when it comes to reacting to failure. At first you doubt yourself, then you start whining and blaming before it ruins you.

      It’s just such a better reaction to accept it and shake it off as much as you can. Like you say, every failure is a lesson.

      That’s cool that we’re post buddies!

  4. Well said, Steve. Our attitudes make such a difference in our outcomes. I can say for sure, that the first 30 years of my life, I didn’t have a very positive attitude–mostly a low self esteem was the fault of that. I made not so good choices that were a reflection of that. Since then, it seems like I turned my life around. This is part of what I want to share with the world, because its such a good thing to be on the other side of that attitude. :-)

    • I’m with you there, Bethany. I didn’t have a very positive attitude growing up either. I took defeat badly as you can see in my story.

      I’m glad to be on the other side of that attitude too. I think it can really help you do more and make better decisions. Since you don’t have that negative cloud hanging over your head, you can think more clearly.

  5. So true that our reactions and our attitude choices are so specifically tied to how we will move forward from those moments. It’s a great example of the extreme power of the human mind, isn’t it?

    Setbacks and failures are part of life – no one experiences perfect success all the time. And how can we truly understand and appreciate success without a taste of failure every now and then? j

    What makes all the difference is attitude and how we react to all events in our lives – failures or otherwise. If you aren’t already familiar with it, check our Charles Swindoll’s poem “Attitude.” In it, he puts forth his ideas that we are in charge of our attitudes every day and life is mostly about how we deal with what happens to us, rather than what happens to us.

    • I wasn’t familiar with that poem, but I just read it. It definitely fits here. I recognized this section:

      I am convinced that life is
      10 percent what happens to me and
      90 percent how I react to it.

      This poem must be the origin of that saying. It’s so true.

      It’s true that a lot of life happens to you. There are going to be things outside of your control. Fortunately what you can control is your reaction.

      You’re right that the human mind can be a powerful thing.

  6. Fantastic article! You can either sit down after failure or get up, your future depends on it, and your self-esteem.

    If you sit down straight away then you’re missing on the opportunities to grow and prosper… I’ve even found some people to mock you when you get back up, and wow that’s unfortunate for them, but that’s people for you!

    Have a great day Steve :)

    • Yeah, I like seeing it as an opportunity to grow. It would be too bad to miss that opportunity and let failure defeat you. It’s better to get up and learn from your setbacks.

      That’s too bad that people will mock you after getting back up. Unfortunately there are people out there like that. I guess they’re just one more obstacle to overcome.

  7. Failure is an essential part of getting better at something whether that’s sport, coding, writing or making sushi. If we’re not failing then we’re not trying to get better at whatever skill it is we’re learning.

    • That’s very true. No one is great at something right away. You have to go through a period of development and growth. That means making mistakes.

  8. well said Steve.

    People react to failure in different ways. It’s all a matter of our attitude towards failure.
    Seeing failure as a blip as your friends said, and even a learning opportunity can make all the difference. When I fail, i like to fail fast, analyse, adjust and try again and again. At some point it becomes a numbers game if you stick with it long enough, you’re bound to get some wins. :)

    • I like that attitude. Fail fast, analyze and adjust. That’s a good way of not letting any particular setback bring you down. Even if something doesn’t work out, you can always try again. Eventually something will work much better.

  9. Great article, Steve! You said it well – it is our response to the situation that counts.

    When things don’t go well, we take the defeat personally and call ourselves a failure. It is possible to give up prematurely too. We must never forget that it is resilience that counts towards success! It takes hard work but we need to keep an eye on our dream.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Yeah, many things do require hard work. That can be tough. It’s true that reacting badly can mean giving up prematurely. It would be bad to let that happen. If you give up too soon, you never know where things might eventually have taken you.

  10. Knowing that failure will happen to us can prepare us for when it does happen. This can allow us to chose the attitude and our reaction toward failure before it happens, doing this allows us to learn and successfully move forward from it. Great post and thoughts Steve!


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