If you never let yourself fail, you’ll never help yourself breakthrough.
Fear of failure is deeply rooted in basic human psychology. We forsake dreams, relationships, careers, and hobbies because of our innate fear of failing. Crazy, isn’t it?
“The concept of failure poses such a significant psychological threat to the human mind that our motivation to avoid failure has become even stronger than our motivation to succeed.” — Guy Winch, M.D.
Most creators are painfully aware of how common failure and rejection are, which over time, thickens their skin and teaches them how to skillfully take no for an answer. Unfortunately, not all of us start out (or think of ourselves) as creators who are ready for critique to be thrown at us. Putting ourselves out there is scary, difficult, and oftentimes, painful. Except there is a way to embrace the process, these feelings, and to overcome your innate fear of failure by simply using the power of cognitive psychology.
Understanding the Growth Mindset
Just as mindfulness counteracts stress and gratitude counteracts dissatisfaction, a growth mindset counteracts rejection. As psychologist Carol Dweck coined in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, having a growth mindsetmeans you see skills and abilities as both malleable and improvable. This concept reinforces that people with this mindset believe success doesn’t come easy, and effort is always required.
Research in cognitive psychology confirms that people with a growth mindset are better equipped to cope with failure and its common side effects, such as rejection. This is because, on the contrary, people with a fixed mindset interpret failure as a fact that proves they simply don’t have what it takes to succeed — nor will they ever develop it.
As a result of this, people with fixed mindsets find themselves paralyzed by failure or just the thought of experiencing rejection. Therefore, as soon as the going gets tough, they give up.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishments.”— Carol Dweck
People with a growth mindset interpret failure in a completely different way. In their mind, failure signals that either they didn’t put in the right effort, or simply didn’t put in enough of it. Growth mindsetters who experience rejection turn their emotions of shame, sadness, and anger into fuel for productivity. Instead of letting these feelings overcome them and drowning themselves in anxiety, they redirect their efforts proactively.
Because they bounce back faster, they tend to work harder in the direction of their dreams — increasing their chances of future success. The fact that they interpret failure as an inevitable and necessary part of the journey increases their odds of producing something that does succeed.
In a fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. People with fixed mindsets believe that if they fail — or if they’re not the best — all of their efforts have been wasted. People with a growth mindset know this is a complete fallacy; failure is what allows people to grow and experience the true value of what they’re doing, regardless of the outcome.
The brain is constantly rewiring itself by shutting down outdated pathways and creating new ones as we adopt new hobbies, start new tasks, or achieve new accomplishments. In other words, since you can literally change how your brain neurologically fires, you can change your mindset — which is what we call neuroplasticity.
This neurological malleability means we can improve our skills just as long as we are willing to put in the cognitive effort. Consequently, if you can put in the effort to improve your mindset and restructure your cognition, you can find it in you to overcome any failure. So exactly how do you go about changing your mindset?
Be Mindful of the Way You Speak to Yourself
The first step to fixing any problem is noticing it. The next time you catch yourself thinking negative or discouraging thoughts, use the opportunity to rewire your brain by changing your narrative and opting for something more positive. It is important to build the habit of becoming more aware of our automatic thoughts and examining them closely, so we can truly understand why we find ourselves feeling hurt or victimized.
When you happen to catch yourself complaining or playing the victim, rephrase your thoughts. For example, changing “This publisher always rejects my pitches” to “Maybe this publication simply isn’t in my niche…” will help you outgrow your fixed mindset and realign yourself towards different goals.
Changing your narrative from thoughts like: “I’m too old to launch my own business” to “Loads of successful people started a business in their late 30s…” signals your brain to remotivate you. You are more likely to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again — while negative self-talk would only hold you down and decreases all types of motivation.
Stop Seeking Approval
People with a fixed mindset crave approval because it’s the only way they can validate their talent, according to Dweck. They believe talent is to be proven, not improved, and that’s where things go awry.
If the main reason you chase success is to obtain societal approval (or to become rich, which also requires others’ approval, FYI), you are setting yourself up for major disappointment. When rejection points itself around the corner, remember that you do what you do and create what you create because you love it, and because you are compelled to do it — not because it’s required.
This is what we call intrinsic motivation, which refers to the work you produce because you’re internally motivated to do so. You do it for the love of the game, not for success. Therefore, because you’re truly motivated, failure is only a blip on your radar. You know that if this one thing doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter, and one hardship isn’t going to be enough to stop you. Yes, approval is part of what makes failure so painful — but approval doesn’t matter when you don’t need it.
I taught in an elementary school for a few months. The school I worked for had an interesting take on failure in their grading system — when a student didn’t pass an assignment or exam, they didn’t receive an F.
Instead, they received a “Not Yet”.
Notice how the change of verbiage makes all the difference? I love how this practice can be applied to everyday life as well. The next time your article, your pitch, or your project is rejected, don’t interpret this as a lack of skill. Interpret it as evidence that you are not skilled enough yet, but that you are truly on your way to becoming so.
I’ll be the first to admit that rejection makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, but I’ve noticed much better results when I turn the other cheek and fuel my progress with a positively motivated I’ll-show-you attitude.
“Failure” is just another word for learning. Even though the outcome wasn’t as you expected (news flash: they never are, and expectations only set you up for disappointment), you can still benefit from the process. And only those who use what the process has to offer, learn to overcome failure, and eventually succeed.
When you experience failure, remind yourself that the latter is what helps you navigate through life and point you towards impactful decisions. Failures test you, carve your work ethic, and make you a better person. If you never let yourself fail, then you’ll never help yourself breakthrough.
But when you finally do, you’ll be bringing along an arsenal of valuable life skills — including thick skin — to help you navigate your new success(es). If there’s one thing you need to remember here, it’s this: rejection is inevitable, and the way you speak to yourself matters. So choose your words and your thoughts wisely — as it is your mindset, not your skills, that will determine exactly who you are.