Failure sucks. No one likes to lose, or to feel like they didn’t achieve their goal. It’s just not in our DNA. But believe it or not, we need to get taken down a notch occasionally. Science actually proves that failure is good for us.
Failure is “a lack of success or inability to achieve one’s expected marker,” says Lara Pence, PsyD, MBA, Chief Mind Doc & Corporate Wellness Officer at Spartan. But failure is incredibly subjective. “It’s relative to each person’s experience (past and present) and expectations,” she says. “The same two people can be in the same meeting, hear the same words, read the same facial expressions, and emerge with two distinct feelings: It was a success, it was a failure.” Essentially, failure is in the mind of the beholder.
And therein lies the power of failure. With the right re-framing, defeat can actually help bolster your mental game and challenge you to grow in ways you wouldn’t if you’d just simply “won.” The trick, though, is harnessing that feeling—physically and mentally—and shifting your perspective in the moment and in retrospect. Easier said than done, especially if you’ve been training hard for a race and scored a DNF, or lost a job, or let down a loved one… the list goes on.
Here’s what Pence has to say about why a healthy dose of failure can actually enhance your physical body and mental strength—plus, her best mental techniques for converting failure into success.
1. Failure Is Good Because It Gives You a Serious Ego Check
SPARTAN RACING: Why is failure actually good for you as a racer and athlete? As a human?
LARA PENCE: What’s wonderful about failure is that it provides an opportunity for reflection and exploration. When we come up short to expectation, we are given a pathway for collecting critical data. But that means dropping our ego. Because if we decide that exploring our failure is good for us, we have to acknowledge (aloud and to ourselves) that we have not done what we set out to do. But it’s a time when we get to ask a few really important questions like, What didn’t I do that I need to do next time? What got in the way of me being successful? Where do I need to train harder? Where do I need to be smarter? When we learn from our failures, we are that much stronger when the next obstacle arrives because we have collected the data and can use that data to our advantage.
By the way, excuses—if only my shoelace didn’t untie; if only I picked a different rope; if only my kid slept better the night before my race and then I would have been fully rested—prevent you from collecting data. You offload your own participation onto the poorly made laces, the slippery rope, the awoken child…and what happens to the data that rests in the failure? It sits, untaken, and you lose out on valuable information that could increase your performance and participation.
2. Failure Is Good Because It Gives You the Data You Need to be Better, Stronger, Faster
SR: How does failure cripple people—especially in training?
LP: Let’s take a simple rope climb. After training hard for a few months at the gym, Josh fails the rope climb during his first Spartan. His inner critic shows up immediately: “You never should have done this Spartan in the first place.” And then the shame gremlin jumps in: “You aren’t good enough to be here with all these other people. In fact, you aren’t good enough as an athlete to race, period.” If Josh lets the inner critic and shame gremlin pitch a tent in his head for a while, he will start to actually believe those thoughts—and then he bails out of the next race. Or he decides to quit training altogether. Or he tells himself the story that he’s never going to get the rope climb so he stops trying and at the next race, he goes straight to the burpee pit at the rope climb, not even attempting another go. NOT GOOD!
However, if Josh says to himself: “OK, failure happens. It happened to me today and it happens to others. What can I learn from this failure?” And then, he asks his racing buddy: “Hey, I completely failed the rope climb, can you take a look at my technique to make sure I’m doing it right?” That is going to get him further, right? Because he’s using the element of common humanity and the data to propel him forward rather than hold him back.
3. Failure Is Good Because It’s An Opportunity to Redefine Your Self-Worth
SR: People can take personal setbacks pretty hard. Why is it important to re-frame failure for your self-image?
LP: If you identify failure as a measure of your own worth and value, you will lose. We all fail. Often. And anyone who says otherwise is either full of crap, or not aware enough to see their failures. We have small fails (like not noticing our spouse’s haircut) or big fails (like losing a job because you falsified documents). But we all fail. Once you begin to see failure as a part of the human experience, not a measure of your own worth and value, you can open yourself up to how failure is good for you.
4. Failure Is Good Because It Helps You Understand—And Overcome—Obstacles
SR: How is failure important to being a Spartan?
LP: Spartan is all about overcoming obstacles—both the ones in your head and the ones you encounter outside of yourself. But overcoming obstacles doesn’t mean perfecting them. It means learning from them, understanding how obstacles shape your view of yourself, relationships, and the world. We need obstacles because they are our vehicle for failure. And, we need failure to truly elevate our own sense of self, perform to our truest capacity, and contribute to the world in a meaningful and purposeful way.
5. Failure Is Good Because It’s a Reminder to Ask for Help
SR: Say someone’s hit rock bottom and re-framing failure seems impossible. How do you climb out of the negative self-talk spiral when it seems way out of reach?
LP: Use the people around you. Get vulnerable and give yourself permission to ask for help. As a society, we have pathologically attached ourselves to the idea that we have to go at things alone and if we ask for help or support we are weak. This leaves us feeling hopeless, and, perhaps even worse, completely alone. We are meant to use each other for support. We are meant to connect and reach out. We are meant to benefit from the tribe. Yes, the sole warrior learns lessons, gains confidence, and absorbs wisdom through his/her solitariness, but when we are in the depths of darkness, sometimes we need someone to give us a light. Don’t try to climb out alone, let your support system be a lantern until you can light the way yourself.
3 Techniques to Turn Failure Into Success
1. Pick a failure mantra—and go back to it: Shift your perspective on failure using a mantra that ties failure to common humanity. It could be “everybody fails” or “failure happens. It’s not that it happens that matters, but what you do with it.” Write this mantra on a Post-It, store it in your phone, and use it regularly to remind yourself that failure is inevitable.
2. Make it constructive, right away: When you fail, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this that will make the failure purposeful?” Write down at least three things that this failure taught you.
3. Share your failure: Often we want to hide the ways in which we’ve failed because we are ashamed or fear judgment. When we share our failures we give them less negative power and then we can have greater control over what we do with them.