Downfalls are Opportunities

Posted by Judy Anne Cavey on Mar 3, 2011 in , , | No Comments

The thought of failure can often make some people break out into a cold sweat.

But perhaps we should consider our downfalls great opportunities.

How we look at failure matters. Some psychologists and job hunt guru’s feel that it’s the setbacks, adversity, and even trauma, which motivates us to be successful. Here are a couple of stories to prove their point…

Great Failure Stories

J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter author) went through a broken marriage, parental disapproval and poverty. All she went through motivated her to write, her first dream, since she had nothing else to lose.  She stated, “Failure stripped away everything inessential…it taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”

Steve Jobs (Apple Computer founder) had three set-backs: he dropped out of college, was fired from the company he founded, and was diagnosed with cancer. He said, “I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeeded.”

Their personal failures were opportunities that aimed them towards their careers and success.

Failure is Important

Several years ago, a college student spoke to me about her philosophy, which disturbed me. She stated that, “I never want to fail, I haven’t yet and I don’t intend to…ever”. My comment to her was that without failure, she will not learn from mistakes, and everyone makes mistakes. The day she finally realized she was not perfect, I’m sure was a shocking reality for her to process.

Failure provides us with necessary information so we don’t wind up with unrealistic expectations, and acts as a guide to the road we were destined to be on.

We must understand that failure is how our brain actually learns. In Psychology Today, “Weathering the Storm”, it is stated that,“The brain, you might say, feeds on failure. We are acutely sensitive to negative feedback, and this ‘negative bias’ drives learning, at least from teenagehood on up.” And Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia feels that, “An occasional failure in life is extremely important information. When you look at stories of great leaders they almost all had major setbacks.”

What’s one negative some psychologists report today regarding parenting? That parents aren’t allowing their children to fail, setting them up for problems later in life. Also, teachers have reported having students who cannot cope with failure in the classroom.

We Survive and Grow

We learn we can survive our shortcomings, life would be boring if everyday didn’t challenge us to a certain extent. Having said that, we need to ensure when life throws us too much, we have solid ground to withstand the onslaught.

Richard Robbins, director of the Personality, Self and Emotion Laboratory at the University of California Davis, thinks that shame, especially when we have public failure, can wreck havoc on us. Shame attributes the failure to something you are, which is harder to face, as opposed to guilt, which addresses failure as something you did.

Often, when job loss takes place, people will either feel guilty or shameful. The person who feels guilt, may think it’s their fault they were laid off or can’t find employment quickly. On the other hand, the person who feels shame for being laid off associates this with who they are–a failure–across the board.

Some students fall into the same boat, putting a great deal of weight on graduating with straight A’s. If they get a “B+” in one class, they feel they’re failures, carrying around either guilt or shame.

Four Dimensions to Life

Stephen Berglas, a California psychologist and personal coach states we need “multidimensional” lives. This helps to ensure if we have failure in one aspect of our lives, it won’t seem as daunting, we have the others to fall back on.

There are four basic dimensions to our lives, says Robert Emmons, psychologist at the University of California at Davis: achievement, community, spirituality and legacy. We lose achievement when we lose our job, therefore, the remaining three dimensions get stronger. Since Americans hold achievement in such high regard, which is directly tied to financial success, losing a job can be devastating if the other three dimensions are not balanced. Without community, for example, a person has no outside support system, and without spirituality, a person does not tap into their inner strength, that can set them on a higher purposed path.

Learn to Fail Better

When we fail, it gives us another chance to try again. We learn what not to do, pick ourselves up, and move forward. By monitoring our emotions, not ruminating (which can create a spiral), and understanding what we are capable of doing in our world, all provides a cushion when we fall.

As Bruce Grierson, (author of U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?) states, “To begin again from scratch is itself part of the American script.” And it’s been commonly known as “picking yourself up by the bootstraps”.

“It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.” – E.E. Cummings


©2009 Judy Anne Cavey, who resides in the S.F. Bay Area of California is a credentialed, certified, higher education instructor who taught Work Experience/Cooperative Education and ESL at three community colleges. She is also a freelance writer and grant writer currently authoring a textbook, has designed other learning programs, and worked with several nonprofits. Her Edublog, “Work Experience”, is a not-for-profit endeavor designed to assist job seekers of all ages.