i‑Learner Education Centre

Steps to Success » Learning from and with Mistakes

Making Failure Your Friend

After completing my undergraduate degree at Oxford University, I applied for an MSt program there. Unfortunately, I was not offered a place, but I took the opportunity to make failure my ally. Here are some tips to help you do the same:

Stigmatising failure discourages trying

In Ancient Greece, the punishment for a merchant whose business failed was to sit in the marketplace with a basket on their head. Nearly three thousand years later, we still have not learnt that stigmatising and shaming people for failure discourages trying. Once the basket was removed, for example, how many of those merchants would have wanted to go back into business once more? We must instead maximise the benefits we can get from things which do not work; a decrepit car can still be stripped for parts.

Practise self-compassion

What would you say if the person you love most in the world was feeling sad and depressed after failing at something? Failing is not bad for you; the stress caused by failure is bad for you. As such, treat yourself with the gentleness you would others when dealing with failure. It is vital to practise self-compassion.

Learn the right lessons from mistakes

We are often told that it is important to learn from mistakes. The reality is that it is important to choose the right lessons from mistakes to ensure we make them less often, and this requires us to approach past failures rationally. For example, The Detroit Pistons recently broke the National Basketball Association (NBA) record for longest losing streak in NBA history. After every one of their twenty-eight losses in a row, everyone associated with the Pistons racked their brains to understand their continued failure. It took longer than anyone in Detroit would have liked, but on New Years Eve 2023, the Pistons finally worked out what they were doing wrong and won. We could all learn by applying the same level of rigorous introspection and dogged determination to our failures as the Pistons did.

Failure is inevitable, time to learn to embrace it!