“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Because I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
This lovely ode to the benefits of failure was part of the 2008 Harvard University Commencement address delivered by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.
Most of us naturally think that it’s only our successes that lead to the good things in our lives, and that we’re best off forgetting our failures, or avoiding them altogether.
But when we try to see failure not as a definition of who we are, but as an inevitable part of engaging with life, we can become more comfortable with it. And getting friendly with failure can open us up to benefits — including self-knowledge, focus, persistence, courage, and resilience – that can directly help us create the lives we want to live.
Speaking about the failures in other endeavors that eventually led to her triumph as the author of the Harry Potter series, Ms. Rowling continued:
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
I love this passage because Rowling, in her charming way, lays out some of the benefits of failure and offers an inspiring example of making the most of them.
“I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was.”
“I began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”
“I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
So how can the rest of us take a lesson from J.K. Rowling and make the most of our failures? Here are five steps that can help:
Remind yourself that you’ve experienced a failure, not that you are a failure. Think about some of the good things in your life and recall that, however painful this failure is, your life is bigger than this experience.
Think of an earlier experience failure that led to good things in your life. Did failure to get a promotion lead you to learn new skills or find a new job? Did the end of a relationship help you to find new strength and better align your life with your own priorities and values?
Ask yourself what you might learn from your current experience of failure. What can you learn about yourself, about what is most important to you, and what it will take to get to where you want to be?
Imagine some ways you could use this failure to make your life better. Picture yourself in the future looking back on this experience and appreciating the good things it led to.What did it lead you to do differently, and how did that lead you to greater happiness, meaning, or success?
Choose one or two of the changes you dreamed up in step four and commit to taking steps toward making them a reality.
It may not be easy, but getting friendly with failure can us help to clarify our goals, discover how we can best pursue them, and gain the courage to go after them with resilience and determination.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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