Embracing failure is often, paradoxically, the key to success.

Share story

This sounds counterintuitive. Who likes failure? Nobody, of course. Few people relish risk and uncertainty, not to mention the public embarrassment that often accompanies a pratfall. Worse, when it comes to our careers, failure can have a very real, very negative effect on our bottom lines.

But the thing is, while you’re avoiding failure you are often not doing other things. For example, you’re not trying out new approaches. You’re not learning anything new. You are very likely not moving forward toward your goals.

A focus on avoiding failure may even cause us to purposely “aim low.” Or to waste time on approaches that are clearly not working out because giving up feels like failing. Failure avoidance not only leads to a squandering of resources and much stress, it very often results in, well, failure.

So let’s look at the bright side of failing. (Yes, there is one.) First, it’s through failure that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Knowing what not to do can often be the key to knowing what to do. In the cold, clear light of post-failure, we see our strengths and weaknesses a lot more clearly.

In addition, the experience of failure makes us stronger because it shows us we’re tougher than we thought we were. Failure may even show us we’re on the wrong life path in the first place. If nothing works, if we’re running up against a brick wall every time, then maybe this line of work is not what we’re supposed to be doing. Maybe our true purpose lies elsewhere.

Finally, failure can help us discover our truest friends. Everyone is bound to sooner or later make some wrong decision, or take some foolish risk. The people who stand by us anyway are the people we need to keep around.

So it’s a smart idea to teach yourself to accept failure as inevitable, as something to go through and get past. Sure, you can soften the blow by identifying the worst-case scenario and thinking through a Plan B. In fact, you should.

But the truth is that failure is a part of life. It takes courage to risk it but, fortunately, courage is like a muscle — the more we use it, the stronger it gets.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at wg@karenburnsworkinggirl.com.