Why Do We Always Have to Learn Something From Failure?
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Why Do We Always Have to Learn Something From Failure?

So, you f*cked up at work. Like, really bad. Maybe you tanked an important job interview, or accidentally sent a NSFW email that was meant for your work BFF to the whole company. Maybe your business failed, or you got fired. Whatever the failure is, our first instinct is to crawl into a hole of self pity and only return to the real world after we’ve beaten ourselves up enough times. Not only does this method make you feel even shittier, it doesn’t prevent you from making the same failure again in the future. There has to be a better way to cope, right?

This week on Girlboss.com, we’re looking failure in the eye and making a vow to Fail Fearlessly this year—and beyond. Because always succeeding is like… really boring.

Last month, the world watched as Kylian Mbappé, France’s star soccer player, scored three goals—the only goals in regular time for his team—during the 2022 World Cup final, and still lost. Having watched the game myself, I can confirm that he unequivocally understood the assignment. Mbappé single-handedly tied the score against Argentina and short of throwing himself into the net to sub as goalkeeper, there was nothing more he physically could have done.

And yet, he lost. France lost. That, according to the rules of the game, and life, is a failure. For anyone who has ever played sports or watched a cheesy sports movie, you’ll know that, typically, losses are preceded by impassioned pep talks and followed by locker room despair, with the coach trying to conceal their disappointment with an appreciation speech for the team and their efforts (perhaps in this case while holding back tears). The team then spends weeks analyzing every play to figure out where it all went wrong and trying to learn from past mistakes.

But on the day of the World Cup final, Kylian Mbappé arguably didn’t have much to learn. He played a nearly perfect game, and still lost. It’s moments like this that I realize that despite our cultural impulse to find profound meaning in the absence of success, sometimes we just have to call a spade a spade. Sometimes, we fail, and there’s nothing more to it than that.

I’m a product manager, so I’ve always been taught to “fail fast.” In the tech world, this agile type of failure is often seen as a good thing because learning quickly from your flops (ideally) means you’ll be able to succeed faster, build more things, make more money—and so on, forever.

But over the years, after failing to meet a variety of goals that I’ve chosen to repress in the name of self-preservation, I’ve come to realize that looking at failure as an opportunity to learn can sometimes be just as exhausting as failing itself. It’s a chore to hold your head high when you’ve failed at something you’ve worked hard for, but it’s an even bigger chore to force yourself to find the silver lining in your lowest moments. We put so much time into preparing ourselves for success that, when we fail, we feel like we have no choice but to ascribe positive meaning to it in order for the sunk time and effort to still have some value.

What’s worse is the expectation to share your lessons learned with the world, to say ‘hey I failed, but look how well I’m doing now!’ to inspire others when they are down. I, for one, am just not that altruistic. And realistically, not every failure can inspire a TedTalk. So, if I’m going to get something profound out of failure, I need an approach that coddles me less and motivates me more.

I first heard about the concept of radical acceptance in 2017. I was watching a YouTube video about grief in which a therapist and their guest were discussing radical acceptance as a way to approach moving forward with your life after a major tragedy. Introduced to western society by psychologist Marsha Linehan in the early ’90s, radical acceptance is “accepting what is not under your control and embracing what is happening now in a non-judgmental way.” The key word here is “non-judgmental”— it doesn’t mean that you agree or approve of the circumstances at hand; rather you accept the reality for what it is instead of getting caught up in the emotional reaction to that reality. Think of it as “he’s just not that into you,” but as a holistic mantra for your life.

Some may look at this approach and think it's callous and inhuman— that detaching ourselves from our past is an express pass to therapy in the future. But if we take the path of radical acceptance when we fail, things might actually seem a bit less bleak. Instead of digging for gold in a pig pen, we accept that we failed and give ourselves the space to truly work through it. Half the battle with failure is simply facing the reality that it has happened. With radical acceptance, that’s where you start—almost as if to say, “the worst has happened. Now what?”

What attracts me so much to radical acceptance is that it doesn't allow any room for self-indulgence. I’m consistently infatuated with wallowing in a pool of my own self-pity. I have wasted so many hours agonizing over how all of my life’s terrible decisions destined me for failure. And when our social spaces only praise stories of failure when they end positively, it makes acknowledging and moving on from failure an incredibly lonely space. If I radically accept that the failure has taken place, and I don’t judge myself for it, I can more easily detach and find a way to move on.

We put so much pressure on ourselves to make everything so shiny and positive that we forget that the most human thing to do is to make mistakes. Rather than failure being necessarily good or bad, with radical acceptance, it’s neutral; it’s just there. It’s a decision point rather than an opportunity for self-loathing. It simply is what it is.

Kylian Mbappé is not a failure. In fact, at 23 years old, he’s already one of the greatest soccer players of this generation. The point is, Mbappé the person isn’t a failure, but he technically failed to win. If he learned anything from it, maybe it’s to double-down on that old adage: you win some, you lose some. In this case, he lost. And it’s okay if the learning ends there.

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