How Do You Rebound From Failure?

Ain El Kebira, Algeria Photo by  idris djoudi  on  Unsplash

Ain El Kebira, Algeria Photo by idris djoudi on Unsplash

Failure can be a painful experience.

I dubbed my second year at university, "The Year of Failure." I tried out for choir and didn't get in. I applied for membership in a student leadership group and was refused. I rushed a social sorority and wasn't picked. I didn't prepare for my speech in my public speaking class and saw the smirks on the faces of my classmates. Failure. Rejection. I felt let down, embarrassed, and unmotivated to make any more effort.

A few weeks later, I watched a practice interview between my professor and a fellow student. The student shared how much she had learned from getting rejected from a prestigious position, but she was going to apply again somewhere else. She was "knocked down" by failure but got back up. I was surprised and inspired. I wrote on the bottom of my notes, "How did she do it? How did she rebound from failure like that? I want to be able to bounce back better after failure."

Years later when I arrived overseas, I remembered "The Year of Failure." I knew I wouldn't be receiving grades on my performance in Morocco, but the feeling of "failure" would come when people would laugh at my new language attempts. I wouldn't always meet my expectations of how much I'd accomplish in a day. I would fail at the goals I set. Failure was going to happen! But how would I respond this time around? Would I be looking for a way out, feeling defeated? Or would I seize the day and try again?

How do you rebound from failure?

Our thoughts and mindset determine how we view life, learning, and failure. Our minds are always observing and deciphering what's happening around us and what we need to do as a result. Sometimes we interpret life around us through a certain lens or particular mindset. For instance, I may view failure as a test I didn't pass, which makes me feel inferior as a person and without hope. It confirms my belief that I'm incompetent. Or I may see failure as an opportunity to grow. It reveals an area I need to learn or strengthen.

Mindsets frame the running account that’s taking place in people’s heads.
— Carol Dweck, Researcher and Author

Researcher Carol S. Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, classifies two different mindsets—a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is based on your ability. It feels “set,” so you try to prove who you are—that you're smart, talented, compassionate (or however you're defining yourself). You seek to be validated. Failure is seen as a bad thing, as it means you didn't measure up and you aren't smart. Effort is also viewed as bad, because it means you don't already possess the skill. The fixed mindset leads people to stop wanting to learn.

A growth mindset is based on your effort. It's a mindset of changing qualities—learning something new and developing yourself. Failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow.


Watch this 2-minute animated video explaining helpful differences between the fixed mindset and growth mindset.


The fixed mindset hinders learning.

In one of Dweck's studies, new students at the University of Hong Kong were offered free English classes. All classes, textbooks, and exams at the university were in English, so the offer was generous for those students who were not fluent when they entered.

Not all of the students jumped at this offer. Through surveying the students, they found that those students who said “yes” to the offer also believed that they could substantially change how intelligent they were. This thinking lined up with the growth mindset, a belief that people can change through effort and learning.

The students who said “no” to the free classes indicated they believed that people have a certain amount of intelligence and they can't do much to change it—a fixed mindset. Perhaps those with the fixed mindset didn't want to expose any inadequacies and take risks where they might appear to not be smart.

‘Becoming is better than being.’ The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.
— Carol Dweck, Researcher and Author

The brain CAN change.

Maybe you’re wondering if you might be stuck with a fixed mindset? No need to be discouraged, as ample research has proven our minds' ability to change. Our mindset or thinking, neurologically speaking, is a series of pathways in our brain. Think of it as a series of trails through a forest. Some are well-groomed and often-used paths, others are small and infrequently used. We have the ability to make new trails in our brains, but it takes work. We can also let old paths go, and they will eventually become grown over with disuse.

So if you want a new mindset, start choosing to think a new way. The more often you do, the wider and more used that path will become!

Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn't define you. It's a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from..png

Why is this important?

The growth mindset breeds hope. It encourages discovery and continued learning. It keeps people from turning inward and feeling stuck when things don't go as expected. In a team setting, it believes the best of others and encourages their process and progress. Because the brain is malleable, challenging work helps to rewire the brain. When there is hope of change, resiliency and continued learning results.

How can you take steps toward a growth mindset?

1) Add "yet" to your vocabulary.

This reminds us that we are in the process of learning. Just because we don't know something now doesn't mean we won't learn it later. Try adding phrases like this which show that there's the possibility of growth: "I'm not competent yet." or "I don't know it well yet." or one I used a lot, "No, I don't speak the language well yet."

2) Focus on your effort rather than ability.

Keep your talk in the "growth mindset" realm. While the fixed mindset belief might be a true fact (for example, you are intelligent), it could still hinder you from attempting new challenges. There’s a possibility you may fail. It would skew your "I'm intelligent" identity or it might keep you from continuing to learn, because you feel like you’ve arrived already. Challenge yourself to think "growth mindset" thoughts instead.

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3) Ask new questions.

In order to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, you must challenge your thinking in how you view mistakes. Instead of being self-evaluative, using "I" statements (like, "I will never be able to run a kilometer." or "I can't entertain guests well."), ask yourself questions.

For example:

  • "What did I learn from that mistake?"  

  • "How did I work hard today?"

  • "Did I spend enough time on this?"

  • "How can I utilize someone else who knows this already?"

4) Invite feedback.

What might sound like a critique to someone with a fixed mindset could be a springboard for action for the growth mindset person. Feedback provides insight into our lives from another perspective. It doesn't need to be received as a critique on our fixed traits like intellect and talent, but it can open us to new ways to improve.

5) Remember how you learned in the past.

Do you remember the first time you tried baking a gourmet dessert or driving a car or speaking a new language? The first time is always just OK. But each time it's practiced, there's learning happening and overall improvement. We aren't good when we begin, but we learn with practice. Create a vision and keep making strides to get there.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
— Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

How do you handle failure?

What kind of mindset do you normally function in—a growth mindset or fixed?

What's one step you can take to more regularly operate within the growth mindset?