Anxious woman

3 ways to learn from failure

Any examination of success and failure, or indeed life, must acknowledge that they only exist in terms of perspective. Of course, there are times when “failure” is seemingly absolute, such as when you achieve less than 50 per cent on an exam, you don’t get a job or a romantic relationship ends. Even in these cases, though, while the external judgement is absolute, your reaction to it is an entirely personal matter.

What this comes down to is that one person’s failure is another person’s success. If I am the “Number 1” tennis player in the world, then to lose in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon might be considered failure. If I am someone who knocks a tennis ball around occasionally but has not played competitively for a decade or more, then to reach the quarter-finals of Wimbledon would be a major success, not to mention an outright miracle. Even for the Number 1 player, though, depending on their expectation, and their self-belief, and the circumstances on the day, they too may not experience the loss as a failure.

Failure and success are in truth simply points along the spectrum of life. As such, neither needs to be feared and the best way to dispel fear is through knowledge. So in this article we will seek to know success and failure as best we can. Let us begin then as true lotus-eaters would with what most of us regard as the more palatable end of the spectrum: success.

Let’s talk about success

While the particular qualities of success will vary from person to person, there are a couple of universal aspects to success. First, to be successful is to be connected; to family, to friends and to the wider community. That is, success involves being aware of the needs of others and not simply focusing on your own existence.

Second, to be successful involves doing what you want to be doing. To do the things you want to, however, requires that you know what you want to do. In turn, this demands a degree of self-knowledge and that requires time spent in getting to know your own mind.

Being connected and knowing your mind are the two pillars of a successful life.

How does this relate though to the common perceptions of success? What of fame, wealth, beauty and holidays in Biarritz? For a start, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things. The question is, though, are they valid markers of success? The answer, unfortunately, is nobody knows and nobody knows because it all comes back to your motivation. Markers of success will differ from person to person.

Being connected and knowing your mind are the two pillars of a successful life.

Victor Sultas is a life and business coach who says, “I ask my clients to define their own success by what they value most on a lifetime basis … in terms of work pursuits, community contribution, family, friends, wellbeing and gratitude. This means you don’t judge yourself by what others value. So, if material gain is your thing and it brings you peace, happiness and health, trust what you value and go for it.” What Sultas is touching on here is that success is an internal event. It comes from living congruently with your own true nature and values.

From the Buddhist perspective, Buddhist nun Robina Courtin says, “Buddha has an analogy that a bird needs two wings: wisdom and compassion. All the work you do on yourself to get yourself together and be a good person is the wisdom wing. This is where you work on yourself, you get rid of your rubbish, you take responsibility, you go against ego nonsense and you grow your positive qualities. The wisdom wing brings you what you need: happiness, enjoyment, and contentment. What that does is qualify you to help others and that is your compassion wing. In that context on the first level, success is the work that you do on yourself. So success would be if you are angry and you want to hurt somebody, you struggle with it and then you don’t hurt them; that’s success. The fact that you are angry we might all think of as being terrible, but if you are working on it that is success. That’s the internal success. The external success is that what you do or say, at the bare minimum, does not harm others, but even more fantastically, it benefits them.”

The Sufi attitude is not dissimilar. Sufi counsellor Fleur Bonnin says, “When one lives through their ego-personality (false self — “nafs” in Sufism) and only relates from this false or unreal aspect of self to life, they have very little connection to their real self, their spiritual dimension or their Creator. Consequently, life is not lived according to the purpose of creation. The purpose of life and greatest guiding law in Sufism is to know and love God, which is very similar to what Jesus referred to as the first commandment. Therefore the steps toward this goal of knowing and loving God, and not allowing the distractions that are placed in our way to succeed, is the true measure of success.”

The common thread here is a need to know yourself, to know your mind, to know how it works and to know what is truly important to you. These are the underpinnings and the markers of a successful life. The burning question, then, is what is your “mind” that you are seeking to know?

Robina Courtin explains, “There are only two kinds of phenomena in this universe: mind and matter. There are billions of minds or in Tibetan in fact the word is semchen, ‘mind possessor’. Mind does not refer to anything physical, does not refer to a brain. There is mind and there is matter; all matter is made of the four elements and mind is consciousness and there are trillions of consciousnesses in the Universe. Mind is the capacity to be conscious at whatever level. Consciousness is not physical although it is linked to a physical brain. Mind is a stream of mental moments without beginning. Buddha is all about knowing the mind because what you have implanted there from before is the source of your happiness or unhappiness, so you need to know it, unravel it and reconstruct it until you have a perfect mind.”

Your friend, failure

To live well and deeply, it is important that failure is a welcome partner on your life’s journey. Perhaps it is not one that you need to seek but you can certainly try to come to awareness that failure’s arrival on your path is not a bad thing and, in fact, can be the best possible thing. Here are some important things to note about failure:

Failure is feedback
When failure happens you can choose how to view it. You can see it as a devastating critique of your personal worth if you want to, but this is not productive, it won’t create happiness and productivity and, mostly, it is not accurate. A much more useful and accurate way to view failure is life giving you some feedback along the way. Life coach Yvonne Collier observes that, “This is a most empowering belief. It gives us a different perspective on failure. It allows you to not fear failure, to accept that failure is part of life experience and that learning from our mistakes and failures is all part of the process of living a full life.”
Failure is an opportunity
To refer back to the previous point, how incredibly valuable is feedback? Victor Sultas observes, “Failure can be viewed as learning and not as a lesson. Learning is a choice and you’re aware of what you are choosing to learn and grow toward. A lesson is something more akin to a payback. The experience of failure as a defeat usually results in feeling frustration, disappointment, illusion and lack of options. However, failure can equally be perceived as having options. In every situation you have choices and options. Buying into a limited point of view creates limited options and therefore you limit your opportunities.” The other way to think about “failure” is to go a step further. It is quite easy to accept that failure is a step, often a deterministic step, on the road to success. Yet more than this, perhaps what you sometimes call “failure” is in fact success but you just can’t see it.

Failure loves fear
The key with any “failure” is to try to view it dispassionately and to create distance from the event. It is when emotions attach to the failure that problems arise. As Sufi counsellor Fleur Bonnin notes, “Failure basically is an unsuccessful attempt and nothing more. However, in present-day society, due to its love of success, a lot of fear has been attached to failure. This manifests in the fear of not being right, fear of not being successful and, above all, the fear of not being good enough. Without fear, one’s reaction to failure would be very different.” If you can let go of the emotions and fears that surround a failure, you will be much better able to learn from that event.
Failure depends on context
In its negative incarnation, failure is a terrible event that sends you a derogatory message about yourself. For this negative experience of failure to occur, though, you need to have set up the mental preconditions for it to happen. You create the mental context from which you judge the events of your life. Your sense of failure depends on the mental context from which you view the events of your life. That is your choice and that is your power.

The other road

What we are coming to see is that the dreaded “failure” is actually a gift. It is the rough patch in the road that points you down the track you were meant to take. It is the enforced pause that opens you to new options. This is beautifully illustrated by an anecdote from the life of the Reverend Dr Bill Lawton. This is a man who, among a litany of posts, has previously been National Chaplain for Mission Australia and who teaches Intensive New Testament Greek at the Australian College of Ministries. Prior to the story that you are about to read, he had gained a Licentiate in Theology, a Bachelor of Divinity with Honours and a Master of Arts. Lawton reveals here one of his own significant failures, what he made of it and its profound impact for the better on his life.

Lawton recalls, “Failure can be a challenge; to face the possibility that we have been trying to push too much out of life while putting too little into it. One event stands out vividly. I had put two years of life into a major post-graduate degree course. When the results were published I found I had failed in every subject and the examiner’s report stated that I had misunderstood the complexity of the degree. That was a humiliating moment to face and I was deeply depressed — a lot of basic living seemed to have been sacrificed for no result. Then came my own review. The subject involved foreign language skills that I lacked, but more, it had involved the exploration of a set of themes that were tangential to my life. I would take up the challenge again — but with an entirely different focus where research reflected my own sense of self and destiny. I had discovered that writing and research is not about abstraction but about the dynamic of being. In a sense I must stand at the centre of what I explore and in the process I must be willing to experience change. Since then, 20 and more years ago, life has been radically different. Failure placed me on the cusp of a fresh adventure that is not yet complete. Everything external is open to scrutiny and there are no dogmas or beliefs that are sacrosanct; there is before me an open field of discovery.”

Lawton’s experience is a perfect example of even an objective failure, as in an examiner judging that you have not met the standard, offering opportunity and even guidance. When you consider this and the fact that failure will come to anyone who is engaged in living and the risks that are inherent in it, then all negative connotation attached to failure can be let go.

The internal jury

Neither success nor failure pronounces a verdict on the way you live. They may result from your actions and they may point the way to go, but always remind yourself of this: to succeed does not mean you are a good girl and to fail does mean that you are a bad boy. Joseph Campbell, the master of mythology, made this very clear. He makes the point that people in mid-life who expect good things from being good and bad things from being bad are delayed and have not moved into the second phase of life, which Carl Jung described as when we find a sense of life within ourselves.

Campbell refers to Nietzsche’s metaphor in Thus Spake Zarathustra where the German philosopher spoke of the “three stages of metamorphoses”. In this, Nietzsche says that in early life we are camels, asking to be loaded up to see how much we can carry. In the second stage, though, we should become lions who are the mistress or master of our own portion of desert and who slay the dragon that has written on every scale, “thou shalt”. If you view external forces as having the right to judge your failures and successes then you will live in fear of those judgments and that does not foster a healthy attitude to failure. To know your own mind and to have an internal compass and internal jury to evaluate your life’s events is what allows you to see failure as a friend and to greet it in a healthy and productive way. Even more than this, it is what allows you to live fully and joyously.

Not-so-great expectations

The final thing that demands to be said about failure is that it is almost entirely dependent on expectation. The Dalai Lama has said that expectation is the foundation of failure. If you are able to remain detached from outcomes but remain focused instead on the process, your reason for doing things and in so doing engage in things that have intrinsic value for you, then failure will not be a part your lexicon. Things will still not turn out as planned sometimes and on occasion you will be judged as inadequate by others. These circumstances will not feel like failure or a negative event if you have let go of results and are able to concentrate on the process of living.


  • Success is not absolute.
  • Success too will pass.
  • Success is only meaningful in terms of what you value.
  • Success will be good for others.


  • Failure is a learning opportunity.
  • Failure is feedback from life.
  • Failure is what you perceive it to be.
  • Failure depends on expectation.
  • Failure is to be isolated.


Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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