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What To Do When You Fail

What To Do When You Fail

Written by Mariethe Joan Cobrito

Did you know that Michelle Obama failed the bar exam the first time she took it? Or that Walt Disney’s first company filed for bankruptcy? Be it a bad test grade, not getting into your dream university or your dream job, experiencing failure is a part of being human. Despite often hearing that we can learn from our mistakes, why does it seem like everyone else is perfect but us? And why do we constantly put ourselves down and ask ourselves why we just can’t get things right?

“In order to break this loop, we have to change this toxic mindset into a healthier one.”

A self-perpetuating cycle

Thinking about why you are so incompetent and blaming yourself can be the start of a very dangerous self-perpetuating cycle. As we look for ways to cope with this gut-wrenching feeling, instead of rationally looking at the situation we may turn to indulge in bad habits more frequently, which would cause us to fail more, which then repeats the cycle again. In order to break this loop, we have to change this toxic mindset into a healthier one.

As Dr Carol Dwek shared in her TED Talk, “The power of believing you can improve”, she studied the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Individuals with fixed mindsets have the assumption that their characteristics such as intelligence, personality and moral character are unchangeable, so they work more towards proving themselves because to them, it would be a disgrace to look or feel deficient in those areas. However, individuals with growth mindsets believe that the characteristics that they have been given are just the starting point. This mindset is based on the idea that your innate qualities are things you can work to develop.

"In reality, success stories take time, perseverance and determination"

As she wrote in her book, Mindset, having a growth mindset allows you to thrive in the most challenging of times. It is a total myth that success is about being more gifted than others, that failure does measure you, and that effort is for those who can’t make it on talent.

What to do after you fail

So, what should you do to put these ideas into practice and break the loop?

First, it’s all about your strategy. Yes, your motivation and willpower to continue on will come into play, but making a strategy on how to improve after a failure is what will set you up in the long term. Identifying the root causes of your failure will help you evaluate what you should improve on.

“The question is not about why you are a failure, this is a question of whether your strategy is effective”

After figuring out what caused your failure, think about a smarter way to go forward. Try out different techniques so you can figure out which strategy produces the best results. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself to narrow down your options (From Improvement Pill):

  1. How can I increase my chances of success without having to rely on more willpower?
  2. What can I do differently this time in regards to who, what, where, when, how and why in order to tip the odds in my favor?

And remember, the question is not about why you are a failure, this is a question of whether your strategy is effective!

How to normalize the conversation,

However, even though we take personal steps to change our mindset, the current culture of praising success and penalizing failures is something even harder to change. We often see overnight success stories which give the impression that success is easy when it is very much not. In reality, success stories take time, perseverance and determination. You cannot bypass failure when trying to obtain success.

The Forbes Business Council gathered 15 tips on how to normalize failures in the conversation which you can check out here.

Failure is not something that should be punished, but rather something that should be seen as a stepping stone to success. When failure comes about, rather than thinking of it as a self-deficient weakness, think of it as an opportunity to see that your strategy was not effective and that it is time to change.

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  1. Improvement Pill. “Why You Keep Failing.” YouTube, 20 Dec. 2020,
  2. Frank, Thomas. “So You Failed a Test… or a Whole Semester. What Now?” College Info Geek, 17 Dec. 2015,
  3. Street, Farnam. “Carol Dweck: A Summary of Growth and Fixed Mindsets.” Farnam Street, 5 Feb. 2021,
  4. Tien, Jean. “The Importance of Normalizing Failures.” Newsweek, 26 Aug. 2022,