Learning how to handle failure well

Not everyone can be first, but we can learn from failure.Reuters

The new term is in full swing so I'm hearing a lot about making plans and facing the future with a positive attitude. Which is why I think it is timely to talk about failure.

Failure is not a word that is talked about much. Our society is geared up for success: TV ads are all about the latest technological 'must haves', the newest advances in cars, the best holiday destinations, the most effective diets etc. Spend any time on social media and the same sort of messages appear through the advertising but also through people's postings. So much of it shouts to us: "I'm successful – how about you?"

Don't misunderstand me. I hate failure. I particularly hate it when I'm forced to admit that I was wrong about something. But God has been gently nudging me recently, to think about why failure is important and what we can learn from it.

Just like Facebook can focus purely on the positive highlights of people's lives, we can sometimes look back on history with the same rose-tinted glasses. All we remember are the successes: the great leaders and the amazing inventions that have changed people's lives. But of course, each one has a back story.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, for example, made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts to create the bulb. Once it worked, he was asked how it had felt to fail so many times – and what had motivated him to keep on going. His answer reveals the attitude he held towards failure: "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

So, with that in mind, here are some tips on how we can handle failure more positively:

Failure is inevitable

So many of us view failure as the enemy: the message from society starts young as in schools we are marked on every piece of work done and it is the high-achievers that are rewarded and celebrated. The same can happen in the workplace and we can be left with the desire to try and avoid failure at all costs. But it is important to remind ourselves that failure is part of everyone's story. Jesus was the only perfect human being to walk this earth – the rest of us are going to mess up at times. It's what we do with that failure and how we handle it that matters.

Failure teaches us vital lessons that success can't

Looking at quotes from famous inventors, authors and sports personalities this message comes through again and again. So many said that they didn't learn anything from their successes, but the failures along the way both motivated and taught them to persevere.

As Christians I think it is vital that we learn to view our failures as learning points, rather than beating ourselves up about them. Rather than shying away from facing our failure we could learn to ask what it is that we can learn from the experience.

Failure is not the end of the story

All of the historical figures we admire today had their fair share of failure. It's just what happened next that mattered. For example, Winston Churchill failed a year of school and had to repeat it, was put in the bottom set of the lowest class at Harrow, failed the entrance exam of Sandhurst's Royal Military Academy and was defeated the first time he tried to enter parliament. He didn't become prime minister until the age of 62. And yet he famously wrote: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never, Never, Never, Never give up." He learned well and acted on what he had learned.

Failure does not need to knock us out of the picture. It is not the end, but often becomes the means to our greatest achievements.

Don't allow failure to get you down

Our natural response to failure can be to hide away and nurse our wounds, vowing never to try something again. We can also become very self-condemning, heaping negative thoughts upon ourselves. While incredibly tempting, all that does is start a vicious circle of failure, in which there is no room left for faith. Throughout the Bible God speaks to His people about refusing discouragement and acting out of faith and purpose.

Deal with any sin that may have contributed to the failure

There are times (not always) when our failure is the result of some kind of sin. Again, God doesn't want us to wallow in self-pity or condemnation, but rather reminds us that: 'If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.' (1 John 1:9). If we want to move past our failure we need to accept when we need say sorry to God for any sins that have helped contribute to it.

Failure contributes to our character formation

I always used to hate competitions at school, particularly sporty ones, but any type made me incredibly nervous. I guess some of the reasons behind that were a fear of failure and a fear of what others may think of me if I didn't succeed. But I remember being told as a child that competition was good for me – the fact that there could only be one winner taught the rest of us how to accept defeat graciously.

I still don't particularly like competitions but I can see some of the wisdom behind them. Don't you find those that sail through life, winning at everything, can be exceedingly arrogant? They are not the nicest of people to be around. Learning to deal with failure also helps us to be humble.

Romans 12:3 says, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought." I know this verse is in the context of thinking of others more and therefore serving the Body of Christ, but I do think we need to learn to honestly assess ourselves. Failing occasionally can keep us from getting puffed up and becoming insufferable to be around.

Bring God into your failure

So often we can try and pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down – in our own strength. But the Christian faith is about recognising and accepting that God uses us precisely because we are weak vessels. We don't like admitting that we can't do things in our own strength, but it is exactly when we do that in front of God that we allow Him access to work in our lives.