How to Overcome Failure By Rachel Simmons

Learning to fail is a skill like any other — which means it takes practice. Learn how to thrive in spite of even your most epic mistakes. 



Earlier this year, I suffered an anxiety attack while giving a speech in front of 250 people. It was disorienting and embarrassing; I’m a professional public speaker, and this was an important client. After I stopped talking, someone brought me a chair and a glass of water. I sat in front of a sea of murmuring, concerned faces, wondering if my public speaking career was over.

Years ago, that would have been the end of the story: I would have slunk off the stage and returned the money. But instead, I put my hand over my heart and reminded myself I wasn’t alone. I spoke to myself the way I would talk to my closest friend. How did I know to do this? In part because I’ve spent the last decade teaching failure resilience to students. 

As it turns out, learning to fail is a skill like any other. Which means it takes practice. Here’s how you can approach a setback so that — to paraphrase Cardi B — when you’re knocked down nine times, you can get up 10.

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What’s the Worst That Can Happen?


After I bombed that speech, my first instinct was to blame myself. How could I have let my nerves get the best of me? This is typical of women who face setbacks, research has found. When a woman screws up, she is likely to question her abilities or skills. But when a man screws up, he often points to outside factors that contributed to the mistake — such as a hot room, a phone ringing in the audience or a poor sound system.

Part of the reason this kind of self-blame is such a problem is it that it can inhibit women from taking risks in the future. If you’re going to be convinced you are fundamentally flawed every time you fall short, why wouldn’t you steer clear of uncertainty and play it safe?

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, calls this the “fixed mindset” — the belief that failure is a dead end instead of a stop on the road to improvement. What you want to have instead of a fixed mindset is a  “growth mindset” — the ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn. 

I advise my students to ask themselves the following questions when they’re hesitant to take a risk:

• What’s the worst that can happen?

• Then, can you deal with that outcome? What resources do you have to handle it?

• What are some possible benefits of your failure, even if the situation doesn’t work out? 

For me, the worst outcome was that they wouldn’t invite me back to speak again, or that they would mention my debacle to someone else. Could I deal with that? I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could manage. Meanwhile, I tried to focus on how this failure could make me a better person — perhaps more empathetic to my students, many of whom suffer from anxiety, makingme a more relatable and effective teacher. Being nervous about returning to the podium also pushed me to tighten up my lecture in ways I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. 

You Are More Than Your Mistake


I may have bombed that speech, but I have also aced a lot of other speeches. I know this, and yet it became hard for me to remember in the moment. Instead, I was laser-focused on what I’d done wrong, scanning the faces in the audience, imagining all of the ways they were judging me. 

This kind of distorted thinking is common, but there are ways to stop yourself from engaging in it. In my case, I reminded myself that I’d given a speech earlier in the day to a different group of students, some of whom told me I was the best speaker they’d seen at the school. This was my third time speaking there, and I’d been invited back for a reason. 

You’ve also had a series of successes or you wouldn’t be so upset by a setback. Try to remind yourself what those successes are to soothe yourself after a misstep. The point is not to pretend a mistake didn’t happen, it’s to remember you are more than your mistake. 

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Practice Self-Compassion


So, you’ve bombed. Who’s being hard on you? It’s probably not your boss, colleagues or best friend — it’s you.

Now imagine it was your best friend who bombed. What would you say to her? Would you tell her she’s a failure and she’s never going to recover? Or would you tell her that she’s had plenty of successes, that she will overcome this, too, and that she might even learn from it?

Self-compassion is the practice of offering yourself the same grace you’d give to others — and it’s linked to reduced shame and anxiety in the aftermath of a setback. Women tend to have somewhat less self-compassion than men, meaning we’re more likely to use criticizing ourselves as a path to penance and motivation. 

Just like failure, self-compassion can be learned. Here are three easy steps, developed by Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin:

• Note how you feel without exaggerating or denying your feelings. After my panic attack, I tried to avoid inflating what happened (“My career is over”) or pretending it hadn’t (“Just keep going, you’re fine”). Instead, I tried to connect with the truth of the present moment: I felt embarrassed and scared. 

• Remind yourself you aren’t alone. I am certainly not the only person to panic in front of a crowd — and telling myself I was would have only exacerbated my shame. Instead, I reminded myself that I was a regular human being, and this happens. I even thought of Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor who famously suffered a panic attack on live television and now hosts the positive psychology podcast “10% Happier.” 

• Imagine what you’d say to a friend in the situation. Then direct those words at yourself. What I would have told my friend? “You can’t control what’s happening right now. You gave two other speeches today that your client loved. People will understand what happened tonight.” 

In my case, I channeled this self-talk into the courage to continue. I asked the audience if I could start up again, this time from my chair. Eventually, I stood up behind the lectern and was able to finish.


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Get Out of Your Head


Being overly critical of ourselves can increase anxiety about a setback. But overthinking, or ruminating on what happened, is like agonizing self-criticism on repeat. Studies have found that overthinking — asking questions like, “How could I (or they) have said that?” or, “Why am I so anxious?” — can damage a person’s motivation and problem-solving skills, and increase the likelihood of depression. It’s more common in women.

Here are a few tools to stop yourself when you begin to overthink:

• Take a walk and look at the trees. Focus all your attention for a few seconds at a time on the color of the leaves or the sound of the branches moving. It sounds obvious, but it works.

• Imagine a stop sign. When you catch yourself overthinking, this image can make your brain stop its machinations. 

• Remember what’s good in your life. What are you grateful for right now? Asking yourself this question may stop you from feeling so bad.

• Get your body moving. Anything that gets you out of your head — working out, cooking a tricky recipe or Kondo-ing your closet — will help.


Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do something that scares you every day.” But let’s be reasonable: Fear on the regular is hard to sustain. Instead, try something that makes you nervous every day. Failing well takes courage, but it is also something you can get better at. Here are a few low-stakes ways you can flex and strengthen your failure muscle: 

• Ask for a different table at a restaurant.

• Volunteer for a project or task at work that makes you nervous (but doesn’t terrify you).

• Ask for a free upgrade on a plane or in a hotel (or ask for a discount on anything).

• Try something new, like ice skating, knitting or fixing a broken faucet.

Real change happens in small increments, and often not very flashy ones. Take the boost of confidence you get from surviving a small risk and parlay it into the next one. If you have a moment, watch Jia Jiang’s viral TED talk  “Rejection Therapy” YouTube series, where he explains how he learned to cope with rejection by forcing himself to fail in small ways for 100 days straight. My students love it and it may inspire you to do the same.


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