How to bounce back from failure

Photo by Joshua Coleman

These words jumped off the page, “Ours is a life of huge risk. We try things all day long and they almost all fail.” This person is not afraid of failure, I thought.


And ’this person’ is Sir James Dyson, England’s richest man. The inventor and founder of the famous Dyson brand. My son is very interested in cars and I was reading one of his many car magazines that are scattered around the house. Dyson was talking about his recently aborted plans to go into production of an electric car he’s invented. Despite creating a prototype and investing around £500 million in its development. He clearly doesn’t see failure like I often do.


These words hit home and got me thinking about the ‘failures’ I have named in myself and what I’ve learned from them. There were plenty that sprang to mind. I’ll mention just two of them here.


The first ever training session I ran. It was a complete flop. I didn’t know enough about the subject, nor the context, nor even teaching methodology. I realised that I needed to learn how to train. I also needed to be more honest with my boss who was asking me to do things I wasn’t equipped to do. This was 21 years ago. I attended one of the most memorable training courses I’ve ever done in how to design training courses for adults. I’ve been delivering training ever since. I still use the skills I learned on that course.


Or take 2008, when the small business I was part of was hit hard by the financial crash. I was made redundant with little notice. Although it was a shock, I drew on every ounce of courage I possessed and starting my own business, Peacebuilders. It seemed foolhardy given that we were on the verge of starting a family. However, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Doing work I love, learning as I go and being my own boss.


Despite these experiences, I have often feared failure. Now, much less than I used to. I am learning how to bounce back from failure and there are three things that have helped in this process.


Accept failure as normal and necessary


Dyson tries things all day long and mostly those experiments fail. As a creator, he doesn’t take this personally. In fact, he appears to see it as wholly expected and necessary.


I have the same attitude with my 5 year old who is learning to read and write. I expect her to get words wrong and mixed up because it’s completely normal. I don’t breathe down her neck when she gets her ‘bs’ and ‘ds’ confused. I gently let her know the word she’s attempting to read and over time, trust that she’ll get it. What about myself though? I’m often much more harsh. However, when I give myself permission to fail and expect that it will happen and that it won’t be the end of the world, there is suddenly a spaciousness that opens up.

When I give myself permission to fail and expect that it will happen and that it won’t be the end of the world, there is suddenly a spaciousness that opens up. Click To Tweet


Reframe failure as useful information


I’ve noticed that I often learn the most from things that don’t go well. I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it or ask for it, but I sure as hell learn from it! If I see life – and business – as one big learning experiment then failure provides fantastic data. Data that can help me adapt and change as I move forward.


I use this frame with my coaching clients too. A client sets a goal of intermittent fasting for 16hours a day and finds she’s fine for the first 5 days and then can’t sustain it beyond the 5th day. What’s she learning? This information is so useful for designing a doable plan for her moving forward. How might she adapt?


Pause to reflect. Make it a regular practice.


When something doesn’t quite go as we had hoped, it is very tempting to give it up for lost and move on immediately to something new. Failure often doesn’t ‘feel’ comfortable.   However, if we can pause to reflect and take stock, we can ‘mine’ the gold from the experience of failure. If we can create this as a regular practice, we are more likely to learn from what hasn’t gone well and make changes for the future.

I have found these four questions to be very helpful:


  • What happened there?
  • Why do you think it happened?
  • What can you learn from this?
  • How can you apply this learning going forward?


I am grateful to be learning how to bounce back from failure, with the support of others. What have you learned from failure? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear!