A drawing of a woman throwing away a paper with a big red letter F on it illustrates how to cope with failure

Do you know how to cope with failure? What can you learn from failure?

Handling obstacles poorly and not persevering through difficult times will set you up for failure, not success. However, certain types of “failure” that we’ve learned to stigmatize are actually crucial stepping stones along your path.

Below, Adam Alter suggests some new ways to approach failure.

Coping Tactic #1: Redefine Success

Alter begins his advice on how to cope with failure by suggesting that many of our concepts of success are too extreme. If you’re a struggling musician with your heart set on a Grammy or a young romantic looking for your perfect soulmate, failure is almost guaranteed. However, if you set more realistic expectations, such as turning your musical hobby into a career or strengthening an imperfect relationship, then success will be hard but achievable. Even those people we perceive as great successes—geniuses, billionaires, and award-winning artists—experience many failures in their lives. What matters is how they build upon failure and readjust their courses of action.

(Shortform note: While Alter’s advice to reassess your expectations can help reframe what you feel constitutes a failure, setting an appropriate definition of success might make even greater successes more achievable. For example, award-winning actor Bryan Cranston says that his career got a boost when he adopted the attitude that auditions for roles weren’t pass-or-fail tests—they were simply opportunities for him to show his craft. Once he redefined success by how well he performed during an audition—not by whether he got the part later—he started receiving many more job offers, including his career-defining role on Breaking Bad.)

Coping Tactic #2: Learn From Failure

Alter writes that education research has shown failure to be a vital part of learning. Students who have an easy time in school actually perform more poorly later on than those who struggle and work harder to do well. Alter explains that failure makes you re-examine your approach and try new strategies to reach your goals. If you never fail and never question yourself, you don’t push yourself, and you blind yourself to opportunities that can only be found by straying from the easy path. If you find yourself failing too often, then maybe your goals really are too ambitious—but if you don’t fail at all, you’re not stretching yourself to meet your potential.

(Shortform note: Alter and other writers discuss learning from failure, but how to go about it may not always be clear. In Can’t Hurt Me, Navy SEAL David Goggins breaks the process down into actionable steps. He says you should keep a journal to reflect on your failures when they happen, asking yourself what you did well as you prepared for whatever you attempted, as well as how well you handled the failure. After that, you should list everything you could have done differently and then, if possible, schedule a time to make another attempt at your goal.)

Coping Tactic #3: Look Beyond Failure

The problem is that many of us see failure as the end of the line. This is wrong. Alter writes that since failure is a necessary step toward success, you have to reframe your attitude toward it. Choose not to beat yourself up when you fail. Simply look at your failure and figure out what it can teach you. Meanwhile, look at all the progress you’ve made. After all, if you “fail” and feel your progress has stopped, it means that you’ve been making an effort, and you’ve probably come a long way from where you started. When you reflect on the progress you’ve made and learn the lessons that failure can teach you, you prime yourself to climb out of your rut and break through whatever wall is holding you back.

(Shortform note: Alter offers reflecting on past progress as an antidote to feeling stuck, but, in The Gap and the Gain, Benjamin Hardy and Dan Sullivan argue that looking back on your progress is a mindset you should adopt all the time. Examining your past and looking forward to the future are both exercises in self-comparison, but comparing yourself to an imaginary future is doomed to lock you into a cycle of disappointment. On the other hand, comparing your present to your actual past and measuring the gains you’ve achieved along the way can prime you for a happier life and help you reframe the disappointments you’ve experienced.)

How to Cope With Failure: 3 Tactics to Accept Setbacks

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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