5 Ways to Reframe Failure

UPDATED: November 17, 2014
PUBLISHED: November 17, 2014

Imagine yourself…

…messing up during a big presentation.

…blowing the job interview.

…watching the project you worked so hard on go up in smoke.

Just picturing any one of those scenarios can make our pulses rise and our stomachs fall. This is because we, as humans, dread failure. The anticipation of it can lead to stress, anxiety, anger, shame, regret—all of which can get in the way of pursuing the lives we want to lead.

Take this: Some people might long for a career boost—a new challenge, a promotion, even starting a business—but the fear of failing keeps them from taking the risks needed to effect that change. So instead they hold back, reluctant to give 100 percent, and others are so paralyzed by fear that they never even try.

Related: The 7 Reasons We Fail

Embarrassment about failure can bring people to dwell on the details, maybe even berate themselves over the outcome. I think of this as rubbing salt in a wound. It hurts, and it prevents healing.

So why not reframe this concept of failure?

As a clinical psychologist, I specialize in helping entrepreneurs get out of their own way so they can have the successful businesses they want. One client came in distraught that he hadn’t landed a big account he’d worked so hard to get.

“I did everything I could,” he told me. “I put hours into that presentation—even bought a new suit, spent time and money I didn’t have. Now I’m back at square one.”

I asked him why he thought he didn’t get the account. With a look of annoyance he responded, “Because I wasn’t good enough.”

I probed him for further possible reasons. This was a bold move considering his level of frustration, but I hoped to uncover what was really at play here. “I don’t know. Because they never wanted to work with us to begin with and were just stringing me along.”

We continued this process. After imagining numerous possible explanations, my client realized, “I guess I don’t really know why they turned us down.”


Sure, not getting the outcome you want can be tough. I’m not pretending otherwise. The key, though, is to not let this setback keep you from moving forward.

Related: Why You Need to Stop Worrying About Failing

And by the way, it’s not failure—it’s data.

Remember high school science? The scientific method is all about failure. Sometimes the findings are consistent with the hypothesis and sometimes not. So you note which ingredients or measurements didn’t produce the desired result, and you try again with different ones—taking a different approach.

It’s not failure—it’s data.

It’s from trying and failing again and again that so many things worth achieving have been accomplished, from Alexander Graham Bell trial-and-erroring his way to inventing the telephone to Ferdinand Zeppelin achieving flight, after many attempts.

So, how can you use “failure” to your advantage? Try these five steps:

1. Stop judging. 

Silence your inner critic. What happened happened. Forgive yourself and others—shame and resentment only hold you back. So instead of dwelling on the past, focus on what you can do in the present and the future. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nothing is perfect. Just learn from what happened and continue to improve.

2. Focus on WHY. 

Like a determined, unbiased detective, explore and list all the possible reasons the outcome occurred. This vital collection of data will help craft your next approach.

If you can, try to determine what precise variables created the outcome. For example, when my client went through this process, he chose to swallow his pride and ask his point person why he lost the big account. What he learned helped him land his next three accounts.

3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. 

Fear of failure can cause paralysis—from overanalyzing but never plunging, from staying within the realm of certainty. But powerful change doesn’t usually occur in the comfort zone. So take a chance, make a calculated leap…. Allow yourself to get into a state of discomfort. That is the only way you can fulfill your potential.

4. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

No one reaches the finish line on the first try. Your path will have its ups and downs, too. Don’t dwell on each 100-meter sprint; focus on your long-term goal.

5. Acknowledge your progress. 

Try to ditch any all-or-nothing thinking you might be guilty of. What does that mean? “I haven’t succeeded yet” is not the same as “I failed.” If you’re halfway through running a marathon, should you criticize yourself for the miles you haven’t yet covered? No! You acknowledge the tremendous progress you’ve already made—and you keep going. And before you know it, you’ll be more than halfway there.

Don’t let fear stop you from fulfilling your goals. And don’t settle for the safe plan. Learn from the past to create the present and future you desire. 

Related: A Success Story of 9,529 Failures

Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., is a wealth psychologist helping entrepreneurs get out of their own way so they can have the successful businesses they want. Her newest book Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love is now available. How can you crush your inner critic? Learn more at www.ElizabethLombardo.com