Enjoy the Fun of Failure.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I’m very competitive, and perfectionist, and also insecure, and I hate, hate, hate the feeling of failure — but I know that failure is a necessary part of creativity, of risk-taking, of aiming high. I remind myself that if I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.

So one of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Enjoy the fun of failure.” I really think that repeating this idea over and over has helped me to be more light-hearted about taking risks.

According to the First Splendid Truth, to be happy, we should think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Happiness research confirms that people get a big boost from learning new skills and from novel experiences, which provide that atmosphere of growth. However, while novelty and challenge bring happiness, along the way, they also bring frustration, insecurity, anger, fear…happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.

Once when I wrote about the “fun of failure,” someone responded, “Don’t think about it as failure! Re-cast it in your mind as something different,” etc. My first reaction was to agree, but then I realized — no. I don’t want to pretend that I’m not failing; I want to embrace failure.

For example, I’m thrilled because I was recently invited to become a YouTube Partner, and I’m excited about doing a much better job with putting my weekly videos on YouTube. But while I’m looking forward to improving my YouTube channel, I also dread the process of figuring out how to do that, because I know it will mean frustration, “wasted” time, feeling stupid, and mistakes along the way. In the end, though, I’m confident that I’ll feel very happy that I tackled this new, challenging task. I keep reminding myself to “Enjoy the fun of failure.”

How about you? Do you avoid failure? How do you encourage yourself to risk failure?

* Check out this one-minute video — a crazy optical illusion with burning candles.

* Are you looking for a good book to read to start your summer? Please consider The Happiness Project (can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
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Watch the one-minute book-trailer.
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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Fanfan

    How do you define being insecure?

  • Gretchen,

    I’ve struggled with fearing failure my entire life. I would never participate in any events when I knew that I wasn’t the best. Consequently I have missed out on a lot in my life.

    I’m finally becoming more comfortable with risking failure. What changed me? Succeeding in something that I thought I had 0% chance of completing successfully. It made me feel invincible! The greatest successes don’t seem nearly as sweet if there wasn’t a high probability of failure.

    Thanks for your great, inspirational work!


  • This posting is just what I needed! I just read an e-mail regarding a committee meeting, feeling like I failed as chair because everything didn’t go as smoothly as I would like. Chairing a committee is not my favorite thing to do, but I agreed to do it and that means that I have to acknowledge that mistakes will be made (and all of them won’t necessarily be mine!). I would say that I do risk failure frequently, so I have failures in my past. My job is to remember that I have successes also, and would never have them to celebrate if I didn’t take those risks.

    • gretchenrubin

      I agree wholeheartedly. Learning from mistakes is a HARD way to learn, but a
      very EFFECTIVE way!

      I worked for a boss who often quoted Benjamin Franklin, “Experience keeps a
      dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” I comfort myself with this
      frequently. It’s hard to feel like a “fool,” but I do learn.

      • Lwaldman

        Speaking of understanding and appreciating failure, I would recommend “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz. Another “gem” related to failure is written on a piece of wood that sits atop my desk and serves, I hope, as a message to my college students: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.”

  • Sandy

    I tried to remove my lawn mower blade in order to sharpen it. I am woman, and you would have heard me roar — if I had succeeded. Instead, I am woman, hear me curse my failure and that e-how video that made that look easy and totally doable. I failed, but I had a back up plan — my brother. I honestly want to attempt some DIY project around my house and ONE DAY succeed. I think it will bring me a huge sense of accomplishment. Here’s to trying!

  • Allen K.

    I’ve taught a lot of people to juggle. There’s one mistake that people can make that held me up for two weeks: growing afraid that the pattern is collapsing and so catching all the balls before it does. When I see someone stuck in that rut, I tell them to redefine failure: “If you catch all the balls, you have failed. If one’s on the ground, awesome, you pushed things as far as possible.” That’s not usually enough; they need to be told “Failure!” a few times when the catch them and “Hurrah!” when they don’t. Progress only comes with practice, and practice comes too inefficiently to people who catch all the balls.

    I guess this is all to say, I’m closer in approach to the people who say “re-cast failure” than the ones who say “embrace it”. Maybe the only insight I have here is to say, figure out what REAL failure is.

  • Diane

    Failing at something is a step on the road to succeeding at it. You don’t expect to start a trip and end it in the next instant, there are good and bad roads, other drivers, maybe a detour. Sometimes the detours can take you to some great places.

    I share the same anguish at learning or re-learning a skill, especially when it feels like I’m behind the curve. What helps is to put someone else in my shoes (mentally) and think about how I would view that person. Usually I realize that I’m doing pretty well, what I’m trying to do is difficult and more information intensive than I expected, and I can’t really expect myself to become good at it until I’ve done it for a while.

  • Lordy, I’m 40 and still working on this one. Even seeing the title of the post made me a little uncomfortable, which is telling. My own mom spotted this difficulty I was having when I was very young — I remember refusing to play video games because I just sucked at them, so she took the whole family to the arcade, played Frogger herself (as badly as me) then turned over the controls to me, and we all whooped it up laughing each time that little critter dodged backward and forward and got squished. I had (have) a fantastic mom obviously, but I’m still not cured of my perfectionism. Some other advice I have gotten recently is, “aim for 80%.” I am trying this one lately and it’s actually quite helpful in letting me laugh at the 20% that got screwed up.

    Great post to start the morning with — thanks!!

  • I guess i am no stranger to failure because i do not seem to comprehend the word ‘NO’. I think anything is possible and therefore i hit the ground running.

    Unfortunately now and again i find that there are some ‘impossible’ things out there and i hit them head on, face first. After the initial bruising i get up, brush myself off and keep right on going. Do i succeed? Sometimes, and sometimes i smack right back into the same darn wall again. (hey-i am a slow learner okay, could also have something to do with all the times i hit my head, haha).

    Recently (like in the past 2 weeks) i started a blog. Now i am one of the biggest computer idiots you will probably ever meet so for me this was more than a challenge. Thankfully i had some great help from family members (who have since stopped answering their phones). I drove everyone crazy (and would continue to, if they would just answer their phones)…It has been a super slow learning process, what should take someone 2 minutes to accomplish i turn into 2 hours because i am all over the place, everywhere except where i need to be. But i persevere and keep on going. I know i will get it someday.

    I guess i get all this honest from my father. Seems when he was younger he threw all the family’s chickens off the barn roof one by one, waiting for them to fly. As each one hit the ground he was sure that each one was just being stubborn.

  • LivewithFlair

    I think failure is a blessing because it sets us free to be ourselves. We don’t fear what anyone thinks because we hit the bottom and realize it’s not that bad. Here’s Why We Should Make Fools of Ourselves. http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-you-should-make-fool-of-yourself.html

  • Jennifer

    It’s really funny that you just wrote about failure, because just last week my boss commented: “You know what Jennifer? I think what you need is to fail.” My mouth fell open and I was in shock. You see, I work in a bakery and decorate wedding cakes, and that is the LAST thing I want to do! I saw what he meant though, because I am a very nervous person, so I get very reluctant to try new things or just go for something that I’m not sure will work, and though I’m aiming at not failing, when the time does come, I may cry for a minute, but then I will embrace the failure, and quickly get back into gear and fix the problem. I’m talking wedding cake on the floor, which I hope hope hope NEVER NEVER never happens…but anyway, I found your post very interesting. Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      Sometimes it’s a relief to fail, and to realize that nothing catastrophic
      happens as a result!

      Along those lines, my daughter was so nervous about being late to school,
      for years, until finally she was late one day — and saw that it was no big
      deal. She still always wants to be on time, but she’s not as anxious as she

  • I try not to think of it as failure. And I don’t embrace it. But it doesn’t stop me from trying new things because I love the feeling of doing something new. Whether you fail or succeed, at least you attempted it.

  • LivewithFlair

    Gretchen, this is totally random and not related directly to the post, but I wanted to share this awesome happiness moment. I decided to ask my daughter why swinging on a swing made her SO HAPPY. We had a little family debate about it, and we figured out this little happiness secret about doing things that get your whole body (skin!) involved. It was a cool moment with my daughters! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com/

    • gretchenrubin

      Your “whole skin” — I love it!

  • I would describe myself as a crafty sort – being creative on various levels is my thing. I want to make and sell things on etsy – from vintage fabric and notions – but, when I go online and look for ‘inspiration’, it takes a turn and I feel bogged down from all the crafty people out there. I can’t help thinking that I am not as talented as all these others in blog-land. So rather than start making things and selling, even 1 item, I am afraid to fail. I keep making excuses – that I’m not creative, it’s been done before, I don’t have proper packaging, etc. all really excuses.

    I’m thinking about limiting my blog reading and making sure it is for inspiration rather than competition/comparisons. My goal – one item, and then we’ll see. I know I have a passion for it, now I just need to find the confidence. baby steps…

    • Ruby

      You might really enjoy reading the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.She teaches about getting unblocked and tapping into your creative self.

  • hleed

    For so many things for me, the status quo is just not acceptable. I am almost always seeing possibilities, and the consequence of NOT trying them is worse than trying and failing most of the time. Once you get used to mixing things up, it becomes less intimidating, too. And once you learn that most of the time, failing isn’t that big a deal (nor and end point, typically), taking risks is … well … less risky.

  • Crystal

    Hi Gretchen,

    Just wanted to thank you for stating that you embrace failure : ) I do as well and this fact caused a bit of a riff between my mother and I. In an attempt to make me feel better about a situation, my mother told me “there is no failure.” I became upset because, well, I felt like she was attempting to correct my philosophy about life and could not embrace our differences. At present, I believe that failure does exist. I embrace it because I have learned from my life experiences that within the failure is a lesson that has the potential to transform my life for the better if I first accept the failure.

    Thanks again,

  • Simply embracing things for what they are, is an approach I’ve learned to appreciate. If something doesn’t work out as planned…..it just didn’t work out as planned. It doesn’t need to be labeled as failure or anything else. It just is, what it is. Now, if I’d like to see a different outcome next time, then I might want to do something different! Losing labels is liberating!

  • for me there is no failure.
    If I even try & git past all the excusemakingtemptation—it’s a success.

  • susyn153

    What do you do when failure is not an option? For my entire adult life, I have not been allowed to fail, or more correctly, when I failed, the concequences were enourmouse. I could only wish that simple termination of employment was an option. I am a nurse and the failure scenario usually involves boards of disciplinary hearing, loss of licence and possible jail time. Even if it was a mistake, you are not allowed to fail. After seeing this happen to a few of my co-workers and feeling beyond burnt out, I decided on a career change. I really need to find a feild that you can make the occational mistake in. As you stated earlier, you make no progress without failing occationally. If you are too darn scared to try something, then your patients don’t make any progress either. That and there was just no time to try anything new or even anything appoved that took too much time. A nurse spends better than 80% of her/his time writing what they did in the other 20% and or pushing a pill down someones throat.

    • I wish I could give you a hug right now. If you do make a career change please make sure you don’t tell yourself you “failed” at being a nurse. After 15 years of lawyering (NOT the same as the medical profession in terms of mistakes, although I’ve heard more than one crazy workaholic lawyer with an overinflated sense of self compare it to being a surgeon) I am in the boat that you are. I can’t live a job that comes home with me every night, where so much seems to ride on the smallest actions — at least I can’t do that AND run a house AND be a mom AND stay healthy. I’m free in three weeks. Budget will be tighter but a huge net happiness increase will be the result, I hope. (Hey grammar and etymology fanatics — proud of me for avoiding a misuse of “hopefully” there??

      Really, good luck working through all this. Take care of yourself.

      • And yet I managed to fail to close my parenthetical properly!! Why oh why is there no “edit comment” function for us perfectionists?

    • Ruby

      I am a registered nurse too and have been racking my brains about making a career change in which the skills I have could be utilized in another way, or more satisfying career. Any suggestions ?

  • In recent years our whole life has been about having to reinvent ourselves. We really had no choice. But our fear of failure has been burned out in the adventure. We are willing to try a lot of different things. The intellectual freedom is astounding. Our life seems more rewarding and exciting than ever.

  • When I experience a set back or flat out failure I try to remember to tell myself the same thing I tell my students “Learning is messy”.

    Recently I also realized that failure means at least I tried and didn’t let fear hold me back. That helps take some of the sting out of it.

  • nielmalan

    I hear what you’re saying, but …

    Failure does not always come at the price of just a little discomfort and embarrassment. In the current part of my PhD research project I am working with very delicate materials, and of necessity there are numerous breakages while I learn how to assemble a small probe.

    The problem is that the material I work with is expensive and hard to get, and every breakage costs money. Under these conditions it is hard to enjoy the fun of failure. Add to that the pressure of needing to produce results, and the appeal of failure fades.

    • gretchenrubin

      Several commenters have pointed out that in their work circumstances,
      failure has such huge consequences, you really CANNOT fail.

      In my context, failure has more to do with creative risk.

      If the consequences of failure are so dire (in the lab, as a doctor, writing
      a contract), another mantra would be more fitting, perhaps. Instead of “I
      enjoy the fun of failure,” maybe it would be something like, “Mindfully,
      deliberately, calmly.” Do you use something like that to try to bring about
      the appropriate mindset?

      • nielmalan

        The recipe for success seems to be “have some tea, think about it mindfully, and try again tomorrow.” Following this mantra, I have not yet had the same failure twice.

        (At least I’m not a surgeon, I can afford to make some mistakes.)

  • I’ve learned to also make failure my stepping stones to success instead of wallowing in it. It took me a long while to figure this out because it always seemed that everyone else was doing better than me. I felt it just came so easy to them and I had to take the long hard road. I wanted the easy button that I thought all of the other people I graduated with seemed to have done. But I had to learn that if everything came easy then I wouldn’t have grown into the person that I am now and I wouldn’t be able to help others who feel like failures as well. Make failure your stepping stones and not your undertaker. Thanks for sharing!

  • Candace

    Instead of thinking of it as failure…think of it as feedback. “There is no failure, only feedback”..NLP thinking

  • Ginger

    Amen! I’m glad that rather than re-defining the word “failure” you explain that it’s ok to learn to deal with it.

    In our post-modern world, we’re not allowed to do anything less than perfect. Kids get trophies for soccer, whether their team won or not. Schools are ruling out “A’s” and “F’s” but that’s not the way the real world works.

    It would be better, as you suggested, to learn to deal with failure.

    We need to learn to discriminate between success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong.

    What a shame it would be for someone to “re-cast” the Holocaust as if it we’re moral “failure.”

    You can’t ALWAYS “think positive.” Positive is relative — we must have something to compare it to. Light is only light if darkness exists.

    On the other hand, anytime you say yes to one thing, you say no to another and vice versa. If I “failed” today to do the laundry, it’s because I succeeded in spending time with my children.

    Just make sure what you “succeeded” in was worthwhile. I succeeded in buying a new pair of shoes, but I failed to save that money earlier today. 🙂

  • DrJ

    Reminds me of my post on the PP list: Martin Schwartz’ The importance of stupidity in scientific research. One person quibbled about whether it is stupidity one feels in science, but generally, I have come to enjoy feeling stupid. It is exciting, tells me I am about to learn something useful. so also with failure, I am learning something really important about what doesn’t work.
    Lynn Johnson