How To Turn Failure Into Strength and Success

Yellow and red darts on a board showing attempts at success

You always pass failure on your way to success. ~Mickey Rooney

Who among us hasn’t dealt with failure? No one, that’s who.

We’ve all felt the sting of losing or not accomplishing a goal that we set for ourselves. Sure, we also enjoy successes, but the road to achievement is often filled with more failed attempts than successful ones. 

I got to thinking about this while contemplating my new year resolutions. I always start off with great enthusiasm only to feel it waning a couple of months in. Why do I lose that initial fervor so quickly?

I’m inclined to think it’s because of my attitude about failure; I’ve always viewed it as a bad thing. After all, it IS the opposite of success. I also view anything less than reaching one’s goals as a failure. Therefore, if I don’t post regularly on my blog, then I’ve failed at writing. If I don’t avoid sweets then I’ve failed at eating healthier. And if I fail then I may as well give up, right?


Not everyone sees failure as a negative. During her June 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling talks about the “fringe benefits” of failure. In this insightful TED Talk she describes hitting the lowest point in her life and career: 

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

J.K.Rowling Harvard Commencement address

Rowling points out that we all decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. Some people see falling short of a goal as ultimate defeat, while others view it as a challenge to be overcome. 

Because failure feels so lousy it’s a great teacher. When things come easily we often don’t have much invested, be it time, energy, or hard work. Failure may involve humiliation, rejection, or some other painful emotion, but one thing is certain: we don’t forget. Any lessons learned from the experience are scorched in our memory. Failure then becomes an effective means of learning.

There’s a lot of advice about how to turn failure into success. I boiled them down to what I believe are the basic three steps:

#1 – Acknowledge your humanity

No one is perfect or leads perfect lives.

Sometimes we forget this. Our society and media bombard us daily with news and views of athletes, entertainers, models, overnight millionaires, etc. that appear to be somewhat super-human. When we compare ourselves with them, it’s easy to feel like a mere mortal. Unless we read the back story of these folks we may never hear of their own struggles with failure.

Unrealistic expectations set us up to fail, which is why it’s so important to set achievable goals. No one’s perfect and it might require many attempts. This is where self-compassion comes in. Just as we graciously encourage our children and others to keep trying, we must do it for ourselves. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again. 

#2 – Don’t view failure as a negative 

View it as an “uncomfortable” opportunity.

No, failure doesn’t feel good, but it has value. It’s like going to the gym and working your ass off; sweating, being short of breath, smelling bad. Getting in shape isn’t much fun, but being in shape feels awesome. Failure becomes an unlikely means to an end that teaches important lessons about strength and endurance.

#3 Set realistic goals

A small success is better than no success.

Rather than trying to lose 25 lbs. make it 10. Instead of exercising an hour each day, do 30 minutes. As each goal is reached you’ll feel empowered to raise the bar.

And if you fall victim to cheesecake or life prevents your session at the gym, get back on the wagon asap. Losing a day or two doesn’t mean defeat; it’s a temporary delay towards a permanent goal.

Front cover of children's book The Little Engine That Could

I’m reminded of the popular children’s book The Little Engine That Could.

I bought it for my son before he started preschool and loved reading it to him. My hope was that it would teach the importance of hard work, belief in yourself, and not giving up.

Many years later, after applying to various law schools, he called to tell me that he had been accepted to the University of Virginia, one of his “top tier” choices and ranked in the top ten schools in the country. 

“I’ve realized my dream,” he said, his voice a bit shaky. My first thought was one of disbelief, then amazement and pride.

My second thought was of this book that I had read so often while he and his siblings were growing up. Without the benefit of being a minority student, legacy admission, or wealthy donor, he was accepted completely on his own merits.

The lesson of “I think I can” served him well. 

I believe failure is a stepping-stone to the best kind of success; the kind that’s earned.

Unlike the benefits of money and position that are merely handed over from one person to another, climbing the ladder of success has its own benefits. 

And slipping on a rung or two on the way up is one of them.



Happy Monday | How To Be More Productive This Week

IMG_9990Mondays are great for starting new things: diets, books, exercise programs, etc.

Is there a task that’s been on your mind, but you just haven’t gotten around to it? 

For me, it’s a never-ending list. I’m the typical Liberal Arts major with a variety of interests:

  • Cooking
  • Reading
  • Photography
  • Continuing Ed
  • Crafts

I’m trying to experiment with a (mostly) vegetarian diet, so that means exploring various cooking blogs. Gone are the days when we had a couple of recipe books to consult. Now the Internet offers too many resources and I find myself scrolling endlessly.

The list of books I want to read is fairly extensive, as well. Classics, nonfiction, memoirs…they’re all fair game.

Regardless of my location or activity, I’m always looking for the next great photo. I’ve accumulated so many there’s now a backlog to edit and categorize.

I also enjoy taking online courses and my desire “to get crafty” goes back to kindergarten.

To Do List, Notebook, iPhone, and markers

However, the first order of business is completing the unfinished items on the “to do” list.

I have a habit of starting new projects before finishing current ones. Ultimately, I find myself feeling overwhelmed.

There’s a wealth of articles about how to get organized both mentally and physically. In addition, there are also many tools available, both digital and physical to help us accomplish this. 

While the particular methods may vary from one individual to the next, the following three suggestions are a good place to get started:

  1. Brainstorm a Blueprint

Remember that there’s only so much time in a day (or a week, month, etc.) Creating a list that’s realistic will increase our chances for success. We can always update as we go along. Keep the list to a sensible size: fifteen items are intimidating, while five seems doable. Feeling like we can accomplish our goals makes it more likely to occur.

Some tasks are time-sensitive. Prioritizing our list according to impending deadlines is important. If we have overnight company coming it’s best to finish painting the guest room before cleaning the garage.

We should also prioritize based on other criteria: how long will the job take? Is it an inside or outside job? Is weather an issue? What other obligations are coming up on our calendars?

Taking these things into consideration will result in a more practical blueprint.

  1. Choose and Use

It’s easy to plan out things in our heads because that can be done anywhere, simultaneously with other tasks. I’ll go over what I need to do while driving, eating, working, doing laundry, exercising, etc. Sometimes I even do this while sleeping!

However, until I get it out of my brain very little actually gets done. There are so many things and people competing for our time that it’s easy to get distracted.

My personal favorite is a spreadsheet. It can be modified, stored digitally, and printed out as needed.

Choose your favorite method and use it consistently.

  1. Less is More

They say that a messy desk is the sign of genius and that may be true. But, I’m a less is more kind of girl.

It’s easier to focus when the workspace contains only what’s needed for the current project. Extra items can distract us from our work. A pile of mail may remind us of a bill that needs to be paid or an RSVP that must be mailed.

In some cases, we stop what we’re doing altogether and switch to something else. At the very least we lose time thinking about other things and then trying to get back on track. This is disastrous in terms of time management.

Remember:  Distractions = wasted time


There are many more suggestions to becoming better organized and to accomplish that we must adapt our needs to our personal style. Doing it in a way that’s enjoyable will boost our chances of achieving our goals.

 I’m going to take my own advice and start with a short, doable list like the one above. Then I’m going to arrange it in a spreadsheet and make sure my workspace includes only what I need. 

Of course, I’m always open to new ideas…

What tips have helped you become more productive?