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Learning From Failure: Outcomes of Reframing Negative Experiences

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of all small businesses fail within the first five years of starting (2020). However, failure isn’t final. Research shows that entrepreneurs with previous experience in failed businesses have a 7.4% higher chance of success when starting new businesses than those without any entrepreneurial experience (Gompers et al., 2006). Everyone experiences failures of some kind in their life. Yet, not everyone understands the value of failure. Failures give us the opportunity to reflect and correct. When we learn from failures we help ourselves develop better strategies for addressing challenges in the future. In this article, we evaluate what can be gained from failures by looking into the research of failure, whether to accept or reject failures, the traits of those who accept and those who reject failure, the traits that are closely related to the mindset it takes to learn from failure, and how to learn from failure.

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” - B. F. Skinner, Psychologist

Research studies

Learning from failure as a prerequisite for success

The study

Research from Yain Yin and his colleagues state that failures are “the essential prerequisites for success” (Yin et al., 2019). They obtained data from several sources including grant applications and business venture reports. They statistically analyzed the rate of failures and successes in their obtained data and sought to understand the effects of “chance” and “learning” from failures on future attempts (Yin et al., 2019).

The results and implications

Yin and his team found that “not all failures lead to success” and that there were “early...signs” that separated “the success group from the non-success group” (Yin et al., 2019). They explain these results with their third finding that the successful groups had “significant performance improvements” after failures. Furthermore, they state that the unsuccessful groups appeared to make “unnecessary modifications” after failures (Yin et al., 2019).

These results indicate that although both groups experienced failure, it was how they learned from failure that made them successful or unsuccessful. Successful groups adjusted their strategy, made necessary changes, and learned from their failures. Unsuccessful groups failed to learn from their failures and made poorer second attempts than successful groups. The key finding that separates the successful from the unsuccessful wasn’t the experience of failure, but how well the group learned from their failure (Yin et al., 2019).

Learning from failures helps develop understanding

The study

Shmuel Ellis and Inbar Davidi studied the effectiveness of learning from failures with the Israeli Defense Forces in 2005. They applied after-event reviews to a three-week ground navigation training course. After-event reviews (AERs) are reflections on previous behavior for the sake of modification and correction. Ellis and Davidi define AERs as a “learning procedure that gives learners an opportunity to systematically analyze their behavior and… performance outcomes” (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). AERs are a type of reflection that can be applied to both successes and failures.

Ellis and Davidi organized two groups of soldiers within the ground navigation training course. Both groups were part of the traditional classes involved in the 1st week of the navigation training camp. In the second week of training, the soldiers were split into two different groups. One group of soldiers were instructed to learn only from failures. The second group learned from both failures and successes (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). In the third week of training, both groups were learning from both failures and successes to “cross-validate” potential changes (Ellis & Davidi, 2005).

The results and implications

Their research found that soldiers who learned about both failures and successes performed better than those who only learned about failures. The combination of learning from successes and failures was significantly impactful to the success of the soldiers. By focusing on failures and successes alike, “richer” mental concepts were developed (Ellis & Davidi, 2005).

These results indicate the importance of learning not only from your successes but also from your failures. By accepting and addressing your failures, you are more likely to develop greater conceptual understandings which can aid in future success and goal attainment.

“You have to be able to accept failure to get better.” – Lebron James, Professional Basketball Player

The acceptance or rejection of failure

The experience of failure is a unifying feature amongst all members of the corporate world. Everyone experiences failure at some point in their career journey. Failure brings forth emotions of disappointment in society and self, “social pressure to prove” self-worth, “frustration, depression...grief...inadequacy, and insecurity” (Riar et al., 2021). These emotions are difficult to manage but important to confront when addressing failure. However, not everyone reacts to failure the same way. As seen in Yin’s research described above, some learn from failures and some reject failures (2019). Below we outline characteristics of those who reject failure and those who accept failure.

Those who reject failure

The rejection of failure is the rejection of a learning opportunity. Individuals who reject failures also miss opportunities to learn better business practices. Some characteristics of those who reject failure are likely to have the following traits and behaviors.

  1. They quit early to avoid experiencing and feeling failure. In a TedX speech by Josh Mabus titled “Quitting Versus Failing”, Josh shares his belief that many new businesses fail, not because of irredeemable failures and flaws, but because many entrepreneurs quit too early. He states that “failure is real” and it is a plausible outcome, but in the face of failure it can be tempting to quit too early. He shares a story of his experience running a business that began to fall under and fail. After receiving good news about his business, he explains that he was still tempted to quit and escape the business. Despite his desire to quit, Josh remained in the business and explains his continual growth of success since then. In reflection, Josh states that “you may quit when you’re not even failing” (Mabus, 2017). This attitude of quitting marks the rejection of failure. It removes oneself from the equation and doesn’t permit them to experience their failures and learn from them.

  2. They fail to take responsibility for their failures. In order to learn from failure, individuals must first take responsibility for them. Otherwise, they are rationalized as consequences outside of the individual's control. Current research shows that when entrepreneurs overly attribute their failures to external events there is a probability that they are “[hindering] positive returns” that can be gained by “learning from failure” (Riar et al., 2021). While failures often include a multitude of factors both internal (attitudes, choices, beliefs) and external (global economy, other’s behavior), the failure to appropriately recognize one’s own responsibility for failure removes the need for self-reflection and correction.

  3. They make excuses. When confronted about former failures, individuals who reject failure make excuses. Failure challenges one’s self-esteem. Basgall & Synder state that excuses offer a “strategic means for avoiding the image-threatening implications of accepting personal responsibility for a negative performance” (1988). By making excuses individuals can blame others or rationalize their failure while choosing to ignore their own influence. These excuses can cause conflict in the workplace, specifically if they target other individuals. They also aid in the removal or responsibility of the individual and further inhibit the amount of learning that takes place.

Those who accept failure

Accepting failure allows the opportunity for reflection and learning. Those who accept failure are better able to learn from their failures and are more likely to have the following characteristics

  1. They are creative. Research studying the reactions to failures, found that individuals whose goal was learning-focused when faced with failures were more creative than those who refused to learn from failure. These learning-focused individuals accepted the failure they had experienced, focused on learning how to avoid the same mistakes in the future, and by result developed their creative thinking skills (He et al., 2016).

  2. They are realistically optimistic. Studies show that first-time entrepreneurs have a tendency to be overly optimistic when starting new business ventures. This over-optimism is “the tendency of people to report that they are less likely than others to experience negative events” (Ucbasaran et al., 2010). When entrepreneurs experience failures, this overly optimistic view that they had when starting their business is directly addressed. For entrepreneurs with multiple businesses specifically, research shows that their experience when “coupled with business failure experience” creates more realistic feelings of optimism for their other businesses (Ucbasaran et al., 2010). Accepting failure as a part of the journey to success allows individuals to reassess their optimism and correct their outlook for a more realistic perspective on their likelihood of success.

  3. They are self-confident. Confident entrepreneurs are more likely to start new business ventures after failures than those who are not confident. “Confidence is a crucial element of new venture formation” especially after prior venture failures (Hayward et al., 2010). Confident entrepreneurs are able to recover from failures better and are “more likely to subsequently form a successful venture” (Hayward et al., 2010). Confident individuals who are able to accept failure and yet remain confident in their abilities are better able to continue their career as a successful entrepreneur and bounce back after business failures.

“You always pass failure on your way to success.” - Mickey Rooney, Actor

Traits that assist in learning from failure

Learning from failure is a challenge. It forces you to look at your mistakes instead of ignoring them. It also forces you to change your behavior for goal attainment. There are three key traits that when developed, can assist in learning from failure

  1. Grit. Grit is closely related to resilience and perseverance—two attributes that allow an individual to become their best self. Individuals with grit can face failures with acceptance and continue pushing towards their goals. This perseverance helps individuals with grit learn from their failures and have the stamina to continue pursuing their goals.

  2. Self-Confidence. In order to learn from your failures, you must have confidence in your goal and your ability to achieve that goal. Without self-confidence, it’s more difficult to learn from failures because individuals can be overcome by the feelings associated with failure such as “frustration, depression...grief...inadequacy, and insecurity” (Riar et al., 2021). Self-confidence makes individuals more able to see failures as a need for learning and change of behavior, not a character flaw.

  3. Humility. Thomas Griffin, President and CTO at OptinMonster states that “staying humble helps curb the dramatic feeling of loss and failure” (2019). It takes humility to see failures as an opportunity to learn. Without humility, individuals are more likely to blame others and outside factors as the reason for failures. This blaming of others and outside factors hinders one’s ability to learn from failures, decreasing their chances for future success (Riar et al., 2021).

“Successful people don’t fear failure but understand that it’s necessary to learn and grow from.” - Robert Kiyosaki, Businessman

How to learn from failure

The ability to learn from failure is a must for those wanting to succeed in the future. There are three essential steps to learning from failure. They are: react, reflect, respond.

  1. React. When you experience a failure, you have an initial reaction. Most people feel depressed or grieved when they feel as though they are failing, but it is important to not be overcome by these feelings (Riar et al., 2021). By being mindful of these feelings you can redirect your reaction. Reacting to failure with acceptance and a realization that failure is a learning opportunity, allows you to properly reflect on the cause of the failure.

  2. Reflect. Research from Ruth Helyer states that reflection can be seen “as a tool for continuous improvement” in personal lives and professional careers (2015). The ability to stop and reflect on the cause and effect of failures supports your learning from the experience. Ellis and Davidi studied the effect of learning from failures by using AERs, a form of reflection that “gives learners an opportunity to systematically analyze their behavior and… performance outcomes” (Ellis & Davidi, 2005). They found in their research that by reflecting on failures and successes, individuals were able to create more in-depth learning experiences. This research is evidence that it is vital that in the process of learning from failure, individuals must reflect on how and why they failed. Understanding how and why you failed as well as the ramifications of failure, enables you to not make the same mistakes again in the future. It enables you to actively learn from your failures, using them as a learning opportunity on your way to success.

  3. Respond. After learning why you failed and managing the consequences, the last step of learning from failure is responding. Responding to your failure is taking what you have learned and applying it to your future goals and endeavors. By applying what you have learned to your future goals, you are likely to avoid making the same mistakes and have more success.

What does it all mean?

To summarize, failure is a valuable experience on the way to success. Failure has the opportunity to be a learning experience that spurs you onto greater success in the future. Research shows that those who accept their failures and learn from them become more creative, realistically optimistic, and confident than those who reject and refuse to learn from their failure. Executive coaches can help their clients reach their best self and highest potential by teaching executives the value of failure and the insights to be gained by experiencing it.

“Most great people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure.” - Napoleon Hill, Author


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