Failing Successfully

Posted on 08-03-2018

"I’ve failed over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed." A heroic quote, courtesy of Michael Jordan. But what could you do about it if you’re one of those poor souls who seem to only live through the first part of the sentence? What if you’re in one of those periods when you only seem to be successful in failing? You could buy a block calendar giving you well-meant advice like ‘persistence pays off’. It could offer you some consolation, at least for a while, or it could frustrate you even more. In this article I will focus on the key role agility and resilience play when coping with failure. I will assess scientific ideas with a panel of dear friends, colleagues and experts. Sadly enough, we cannot elaborate on every specific idea in this text. That would take us too far, but every idea is hidden in here somewhere. Also, any attentive reader could find some quotes and further reading material at the end of the text. I wish you all to fail pleasantly, interestedly and most of all successfully.

The Three Levels of Agility and Resiliency in Failure

In literature, someone is considered to be agile, when he or she can recover and adapt his/her attitude quickly and ideally improve his/her performance, after a significant setback. In order to do so, you need to approach failure on three levels. You have to be capable of dealing with the emotions related to failure (affective component). Moreover, you have to assess the situation (cognitive component) and you have to act appropriately to failure in a constructive way (conative component). Although the different components are closely related and influence each other, it is still important to strengthen our capabilities for all three components in case of failure. The tips and tricks we gathered are divided over three questions related to controlling emotions, approaching failure rationally and our own behaviour.

1. How can I control my emotions when dealing with failure?

Susan David, psychologist at the Harvard Medical School is considered an authority on emotional agility. In her work she pleads not to suppress emotions, let alone minimise them. Susan and her colleagues’ research, including Frank Bond, shows that agile and resilient people embrace their emotions in a value-driven and constructive way. This lowers the amount of stress they experience, and improves their functioning. 
A first prerequisite is learning to recognise our patterns by increasing our own awareness towards recurring emotions and situations. Everyone has recurring patterns, ever-recurring emotions. Identifying these patterns is the first necessary step in adopting an agile approach to difficult situations. 
A second step consists of labelling these patterns for what they are, meaning emotions. Research shows that we humans are not only able to adopt a birds-eye view, but also that this perspective can help improve our behaviour and therefore our well-being. 
The third step involves accepting unconditionally that you’re experiencing these emotions, rather than trying to control them. Allowing and researching emotions with an open mind, alone or together with others, gives you the ability to experience their activating side. 
This brings us to the last step in order to be emotionally agile and resilient: behave in concordance with your values. Often emotions are the signal that the behaviour we express isn’t in concordance with whom we are or with whom we want to be. 

Different members of our panel use a similar strategy. This strategy translates into the following tips about emotional agility and resilience.

  • “Embrace your own essentials and connect to your true self.” (Arnoud Raskin, StreetwiZe • Mobile School)
    Thinking regularly about the values you pursue, thinking about what’s essential to you and answering the question why you do the things you do. It all helps you along when you’re having a hard time. Sometimes you come to the conclusion you failed in something that you don’t even stand for. Calibrating your compass regularly can help you weigh failure.
  • “Don’t try to be everything to everybody.” (Jean-Paul Corin, General Director CM Midden-Vlaanderen)
    A widely used expression goes ‘no good deed remains unpunished’. Failure is often the result of a well-meant and rational action, but in reality it is the result of trying to do good. Challenging your own emotions and motivations can avoid a lot of frustrations. Ask yourself why you really want to try something. Is it for yourself, someone else? Is it necessary, or is it just a feeling?
  • “Value the momentum failure creates.” (Frank Vlayen, Group Managing Partner at Waterland Private Equity)
    If you fail, you often build up a collective willingness to implement necessary changes. This is exactly what could eventually lead to positive results. This mindset emphasises the opportunistic and activating side of failure, rather than the negative side.
  • “The only universal talent is the talent to know what you cannot do.” (Wouter Bruneel Entertainment Professional)
    Every goal you can imagine is achievable. It’s a noble thought, nevertheless, it isn’t always true. Of course you can try everything, but eventually you will face your own limitations. Learn to accept there will be things you cannot do, accept the fact you don’t have the talent to do everything. This ensures you can spend time focusing on those things you excel at.

2. How can I approach periods of failure critically and rationally?

Failure is an inevitable part of every successful innovation. Failure does, however, take a mental toll on those going through the process. People tend to exaggerate the scope of setbacks and difficulties, and that’s a pity. Albert Ellis, founder of the Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) theory, states the following: ‘People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness’. Doctor Rao Srikumar, author of the lauded book ‘Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated and Successful – No Matter What’ starts from the idea that the bad thoughts about a situation are often worse than the situation itself. You should challenge your own thoughts when going through a difficult period. 

You should ask yourself why you experience a difficult situation as negative. The possibilities are endless when you’re looking for an explanation as to why a certain situation is undesirable. Is it because you think it’ll never work, or because you’re scared to lose the respect of your colleagues? After a thorough analysis, you’ll generally come to the conclusion that your first analysis is based on assumptions, not on facts. 
The second question comes forth from the first one. Is there any possibility or any way to convert a difficult situation into something good? The reason for failure is generally to be 
found in when you tried something, not in what you tried. A second attempt at another moment could very well be successful. 

The contributions of the panel elaborate to this question, by giving you some tips about how to challenge and channel your thoughts during a difficult period.

  • “You should not only question your decision, but also the process that led to it.” (Hannelore Verdonckt Managing Director at Sumi – Smart & Connected Buildings)
    If a decision you took turns out not to be the best decision, you shouldn’t hesitate to question your decision and the process that led to it. Ask yourself if you would have taken the same decision if you had had the information you have now. If not, don’t hesitate to reverse your decision, regardless of the sunk costs. Be courageous and question earlier decisions. It is hard to let go of a project, but sometimes it’s the only sensible solution.
  • “Ask for feedback instantly.”  (Laurent Hostekint, Care Director at Zorgbedrijf Roeselare)
    In case of failure, try and analyse the reason for your failure as soon as possible (bad preparation…). Try and involve others in this process. It helps if you tell about your failure to staff or colleagues. Try to involve your supervisor in your failure analysis too, so you can both learn something and grow. There will always be someone who can reassure you and who can help you put things in perspective. Putting things in perspective helps to withstand difficult periods easier and more casually.
  • “Have a critical attitude to success stories.“ (Frederik Anseel Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Vice Dean Research, King’s Business School)
    We quite often meet successful people, telling us beautiful stories about their successes. The stories are mostly written afterwards, with a logical and meaningful end. In reality everyone jumps from one coincidence to the other. In hindsight, we see a logical pattern. Don’t attach too much value to these stories or plans. Mike Tyson’s quote ‘Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face’ is self-explanatory.


3. How can I adapt my behaviour to better cope with failure?

The quote "I smile because I’m happy, or I’m happy because I’m smiling" partly forms the hypothesis as formulated by psychologists James and Lange. Their hypothesis starts from the idea that when performing an action linked with an emotion, this action will provoke the corresponding emotion. Although research seems to endorse this hypothesis (Kraft and Pressman, Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expression on the Stress Response), it has not yet been proven definitively and irrefutably. It does bring us to our last theme, the influence of behaviour, these are often small things relating to how we feel. Research shows the importance of physical exercise and movement when coping with stress. Your sleeping hygiene and mental resilience are linked as well. Gretchen Rubin, Charles Duhigg, and BJ Fogg all point out the importance of small actions or habits that could support and maintain our resilience. Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney researched different habits that could increase resilience for their book ‘Resilience, the science of mastering life’s greatest challenges’. 

A first and important habit is immersion. Gradually exposing yourself to your fears is the best way to learn how to control them. Go and actively look for experiences to improve your ability to cope with different situations. 
Opening your mouth and asking for help is a second important habit. In our society we have a tendency to bottle up negative experiences. Asking for help is way too often seen as a sign of weakness. You can’t develop a resilient attitude on your own. You need social support in order to reinforce your ability to cope with failure. 
Staying in shape and regular physical exercise are very important habits in the process of developing your agility and resilience. A lot of physical complaints coming with failure can be dealt with by some easy daily exercises. 

These tips are complemented by testimonials about sharing failures, never giving up, taking your time, the importance of small things and the impact of taking rest on a regular basis.

  • “Share your failures.” (Frederik Anseel Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Vice Dean Research, King's Business School)
    Every little success comes with many failures. Often, the little bit of luck you have is decisive (right timing, right contact…). Considering how success attracts the most attention and how we tend to avoid talking about failure, we could safely say we’re biased about the success of success. Failure is a much more common experience. Sharing failure should be recognisable for the majority of people and it should serve as a learning platform and as a base for support
  • “Never give up.” (Hannelore Verdonckt, Managing Director at Sumi - Smart & Connected Buildings)
    One variable we often don’t take into account when talking about failure is time. You could have a brilliant product, but if you market it too early or too late, it will fail. This doesn’t mean the product is bad, it means your timing was bad. It is very difficult to assess and plan the right timing, because we only have one life and everything proceeds chronologically. You can’t try something again, the circumstances are constantly evolving and. Our advice: try again with the same (or improved) idea on a moment that the stars are properly aligned. Help fate a hand by trying as often as possible.
  • “Take your time.” (Pieter Delbarge, Managing Director Stedelijk Onderwijs Gent)
    Wicked problems need time to solve. Take your time to tackle complex problems. Better ask too many opinions, you might miss that very important one if you don’t. Don’t be afraid to postpone a solution. Sometimes time is your friend, and it could very well bring you fresh insights.
  • “Do something funny or crazy.” (Peter Devisch, Cultuurcentrum Brugge)
    It sounds trivial, but when I’m having difficulties at my job, I play ‘Hold on’ by Tom Waits. The content of the text is not related to persisting in what you do, but the refrain in combination with the absolute beauty of the song, give me an intrinsic boost. It makes me remember why I do what I do, it makes me remember the beauty of art. Quite often a fun soundtrack can make you feel better already.
  • “Look for inner peace..” (Sarah Cherif, Founder bij CUTESolutions)
    The attention Yoga, mindfulness and meditation attract is easily justifiable. We often live hectic days. For me, meditation and yoga help me relax, and help me take some distance. This might not work for everyone, but everyone should plan their own preferred activities for taking a break.


I would like to end this article by sharing a personal belief with you: ‘living a life without failure doesn’t mean your life is successful’. Failure, failing and bad luck are part of our lives. Avoiding, concealing or denying this doesn’t bring you any further. We should invest our time and energy in proactively developing our agility and resilience. The following quotes and the reading list at the end of the article can help you on your way

Favourite panel quotes

  • Jurgen Van Eetvelde (Director Shared Services Center at Group AVEVE): “Make it happen (again)!“
    This is about the fact that no one can make you successful. Only you can do that, so take the upper hand (again), even if it didn’t work out the first time.
  • Alexandre Segers (Business Unit Manager Customised Programmes at Vlerick Business School): “If you want to win, you have to learn how to lose first.”
    By losing you learn new things, you know what not to do. If you know how it feels to lose, you’ll be extra motivated to go the extra mile next time.
  • Wouter Claerhout (Freelance B2B Marketing Executive): "One step back, two steps forward."
    For me personally this means that every setback can cause a lot of negative energy. But you should use the slap in your face as an opportunity instead. Take a step back, reflect, and then try again and go two steps forward.
  • Sjoerd Vermeulen (Owner at Sjoerd Vermeulen Interimmanagement, Coaching & Consultancy): “No guts no glory.”
    If you tried something, and it doesn’t work, you didn’t fail. You successfully established that it doesn’t work.
  • Bert Tanghe (Vice Managing Director at 'De Branding Waak vzw'): “Learn to see the difference between hearing & listening and between looking & seeing.”
    This counts for both someone criticising you as a person, as well as for someone dismissing your idea. Maybe he/she did hear you, but didn’t listen correctly to what you offered exactly? Maybe he/she looked at you, but didn’t see the added value you could offer.
  • Gaya Van Boven (Directeur Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest bij "Learn to fail, and if you fail, at least fail bloody hard.”
    Having doubts incites the desire to take action inside me. If I don’t see it instantly, it motivates me to experiment. It teaches me to let go if I don’t know what I’m doing. It teaches me to persist if I’m stuck. It makes me milder towards myself and at the same time it makes it easier to self-evaluate and therefore to learn.

Reading tips

Susan David • Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life
Srikumar Rao • Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful - No Matter What
Steven Southwick • Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges

Bram Doolaege StreetwiZe