“We all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it,” said J.K. Rowling, at the Harvard Commencement of 2008. “By any conventional measure, I had failed on an epic scale. A short-lived marriage, I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain. I was the biggest failure I knew.”

She went on to say, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. But, the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until tested by adversity.”

This is Rowling’s relationship to failure. What is yours? One might say that her failures led her to the Harry Potter fame, and that might not be the case for many of us. But, do we have to fear failure? Let’s think a little here.

What does fear constitute of? Take situations that you consider as indicators of failure – being fired from a job, not getting a promotion, losing money, a colleague succeeding more than you. While the problems look different, the common belief they hit upon is that we aren’t good enough. That creates a complex experience made up of interactive physical, emotional, and mental components. And that’s where the mechanics of fear come in. People who tackle fear well, are able to separate these components:

  • The emotions of sadness, embarrassment, anger. They even understand where/ how they learnt this fear – through childhood experiences, parental expectations, etc.
  • The physical reactions of a racing heartbeat, headaches, or feeling sluggish. They know it’s a stress response.
  • The related mental processes – of understanding what happened, managing negative thoughts, and even planning about how to overcome failure.

By breaking down the experience of fear into such components, we make it more manageable and not just a messy, debilitating blob of negativity.

How do we tackle it? Remember, that fear has an evolutionary role of protecting – it stalls us and heightens our awareness, keeping us safe from danger. But we can’t just stop here and not move ahead. Hence, scientists recommend reconditioning our brain. In other words, associating the negative experience with a positive one, so we can take action. This could be done by:

  • Finding the learning in the failure; reflecting on what we would do differently next time.
  • Noting that even though you were experiencing a negative event, positive things were happening. Every time you think of the failure, remind yourself of the positive memory. For example – maybe you didn’t get promoted, but shared wonderful moments with your family at a wedding. Over time, the impact of the positive memory will emerge stronger than the negative one.

Since we cannot avoid failure, how about we learn to find comfort in it?

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