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Handling Failure Page Title
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Handling Failure

The TitanicI have learned more from my mistakes than from my successes.
Sir Humphry Davy

We are taught from an early age that success is good and failure is bad. Thus, prizes go to those who give the correct answers, while disparagement and punishments often go to those who give the wrong answers. The net result is that people become success-fixated, with a deep fear of failure.

However, the truth is that if you decide to embark on something new in your life, then you have to accept that you may make mistakes, but that from these you will learn and grow in competence. Thus, failure becomes not an indicator of personal inadequacy, but a sign that you are expanding your horizons and making progress. According to this view, failure is just feedback and a necessary part of the learning process.

A few further comments on success and failure:

  • It is said the Thomas Edison made hundreds of faulty light bulbs before he finally produced the one that worked.
  • It is also reported that the divisional manager of a high-technology company suggested that only 30% of their new product lines should be successful in the marketplace. If they adopted a higher target than this they risked becoming too conservative in their planning! (Quoted in 'A whack on the side of the head' by Roger von Oech.)
  • Central to Inner Game thinking is the idea that people frequently strain too hard for success, and that this can be counter-productive, leading to failure. Success is much more likely to come if you don't try so hard, but stay relaxed.


Aim to develop a positive attitude to your failures, seeing what they can teach you. Be prepared to take risks, perhaps by taking up a new project. If it fails, be aware that it may provide you with the necessary stepping-stone to something which will be highly successful. If you haven't already done so, take up juggling with three bean bags. This will teach you all you need to know about failure, as you will never learn to juggle unless you are prepared to drop the bean bags occasionally. If you're not failing, you're not learning. Finally, from the bold demonstration of reverse psychology by the Really Terrible Orchestra (see link below) you may even discover that failure can be fun!

Further Information

PhD FAILURE >>>>>   Please note that a separate page has now been created containing guidance on how to deal with PhD failure and the associated appeals procedure. Click here for details.

For further information on handling failure and on working for success see:

Failure can be an option by James Dyson
Handling Failure - Failure ... Is Only Feedback - ***Success by James Robinson
The Really Terrible Orchestra ... of Edinburgh
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Page last modified: 25 July 2012
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