Why it’s OK to fail

Written by Humanities Careers Consultant, Helen Buzdugan

If you’re making job applications at the moment, you will almost certainly encounter failure and rejection, if you haven’t already. It’s tough, but it’s normal. More than that, it’s actually a GOOD THING.

As a society, we focus far more on success than we do on failure. A quick Google search yielded almost twice as many results for the word “success” (1.32 billion) as it does for the word “failure” (683 million). We tend to admire success in others, and believe we should strive for success in our own lives, but there are some problems with this approach.

Focussing purely on success can deter you from taking risks, as you may be afraid that if you do something outside your comfort zone, you will fail. For example, I see students who tell me “I’m not going to bother applying for X job, because it’s too competitive, and I wouldn’t get it anyway”. And with that, they let their dreams float away.

I know it’s tough facing the prospect of putting a great deal of time and effort into doing online tests, making applications and going to interviews and assessment centres, when you know the level of competition for that dream job is high. But someone has to get that job, and most of the other graduates will probably be feeling the same way as you. Plus, if you live by that logic, only daring to do things which have a guarantee of success, you wouldn’t ever try anything new. Remember, with job applications, you have to be in it to win it!

Secondly, focussing purely on success can make your self-esteem vulnerable. It may lead you to set unrealistic expectations that you will always achieve high standards in whatever you do or that you should ‘get it right first time’. If you don’t give yourself permission to make mistakes the first, second and even the hundredth time you do something, you will be less resilient when you do something less than perfectly, or when factors outside of your control (e.g. other more experienced candidates or unstated employer demands) thwart your ambitions.

Job interviews are a great example of a new skill that you can’t necessarily expect to excel at the very first time you do it. It takes practice to get it right, and even experienced people who have done hundreds of interviews still get nervous sometimes and have off days.

Perhaps most importantly, when you are successful, there’s less opportunity to learn and grow. Most successful entrepreneurs have had plenty of failures en route to success. Just look at Richard Branson. Failure provides us with fertile ground to learn more about ourselves and particular skills and situations, so that we can develop and improve our performance.

The best response to failure is a ‘growth mindset’ approach. A person with a growth mindset will look critically (but not judgmentally!) at what went wrong in a situation, analysing the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what happened, and assess what they could do differently next time. This might involve asking for honest feedback from others, e.g. from a recruiter following an interview in which they were not successful. Crucially, they will believe they can improve, and they will be willing to try and fail.

JK Rowling – someone who has experienced the extremes of failure and success – once said, at her Harvard University commencement address: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might not have lived at all.”

So I urge you to go out there and try. Apply for that job that you believe you have no chance of getting. Go to that interview that is way out of your comfort zone. And when you mess up, hear nothing back, or are rejected, remember that it’s a normal human experience, pat yourself on the back for giving at your best shot, and think about how you could do better next time. And then one day, with perseverance and a sprinkling of luck, you will nail it!

 

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