Failure: The Good F-Word

Failure: The Good F-Word

Psychology January 10, 2014 / By Emilia Lahti
Failure: The Good F-Word

The value of failure is that it creates a dent in our usual routines and propels us to re-evaluate our strengths, as well as seek out new creative solutions. No one can escape life´s inevitable curve balls, but perhaps by meeting them with the right mindset—with an awareness of our underlying strength and adaptability—we can learn to embrace adversities, and harness their capacity to lead to greater well-being and resilience.

"Potential troubles lurk around every corner, whether they stem from unexpected environmental jolts or individual flaws and mistakes. Whatever the source, what matters is how we deal with them. When surprises are the new normal, resilience is the new skill.” Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1)

Hardships, challenges and even failures are an inevitable part of our human condition, and quite often they end up defining us in the most profound ways. This was the case with me, and my guess is that you can find similar experiences when examining the turning points of your life. Even though nearly always being poorly timed, uninvited and usually delivering a heavy burden, adversity may offer us the unparalleled gift of growth in the form of newly discovered, profound sense of strength, purpose and adaptability (2). Indeed, reimagining adversities and failures as opportunities (and something which are a natural part of the human experience) enables us to enter them with healthy curiosity and mindfulness.

In evolution, progress does not stem from the state of balance but comes when the organism is challenged and pressed to find a new way. Stress and adversity, however, are conditions which expose us to greater consumption of energy and therefore tax our finite resources. Energy provides the means to ensure that biological beings continue to survive. The foundational principle of sustaining and ensuring the continuity of life is based on conservation of energy and efficient use of scarce resources. Therefore, all organisms (including us humans) are indeed programmed to seek out a comfortable state, and to remain in preservation mode until the balance is disturbed and we are forced to seek alternative means and response models (3). Staying in this place of equilibrium saves valuable energy to sustain life, but also hinders the organism from the benefits which delving deeply into its resources can bring.

The value of adversities and failures is that they create a dent in our usual routines and propel us to re-evaluate our strengths, as well as seek out new creative solutions. I believe adversities and setbacks are a gift, in a way, which eventually may enable growth. However, these benefits of encountering adversity are not automatic. Studies show that whether we benefit from struggling through a major traumatic event or suffer permanent damage comes down to our ability to achieve positive psychological adaptation. Indeed, if resilience and mental strength were merely questions of encountering suffering, the whole human race would be wise and courageously living its purpose, right? As the 18th century writer, Joseph Addison, once said: “To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

American psychologist and philosopher William James already over hundred years ago speculated that there is energy hidden beyond our conscious reach which can only be accessed when truly needed (4). One of the most breathtaking things about human beings seems to be that, when facing significant hardship, we have an extraordinary adaptability and capacity to survive through almost unbearable conditions. How far are we capable of being stretched? We simply do not know before we get to that place. However, instead of merely harming the system, an adversity that is faced with a resilient, open mindset can often serve as an impetus for even greater resilience, as well as a sense of empowerment and purpose.

Depending on the individual´s mindset, any event can be seen either as an opportunity or an obstacle. Furthermore, research conducted by eminent Stanford researcher Dr. Carol Dweck and her team, indicates that a person’s beliefs are a significant predictor of any future action (5). Whether you think you can do something or you don’t, you are likely to prove yourself right. An age-old Finnish construct called sisu (recently described as the action mindset) relates to taking action against the odds, displaying extraordinary courage in the face of adversity, reaching beyond one’s observed capacities and seeing into what might be. There is more to us than what meets the eye, and having an action mindset means to see beyond what Aristotle describes as our actual reality and its limitations. Instead of stopping where we feel our abilities end, we push through the barriers. This barrier might be lack of trust in oneself, physical pain (for example during a sports performance), uncertainty and fear of failure or rejection, among many other examples.

Reimagining failures as valuable opportunities for growth can enable us to embrace them with curiosity and therefore, harness the potential and incredible momentum for change they hold within. Be bold, try out new things, push the barrier a bit, lean forward in the wind and trust that the process will eventually take you where you need to go.


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(1) Moss Kanter, Rosabeth (2013, July 17). Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill (this is the wonderful article that gave an inspiration for this post. High thank you to Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter!

(2) Joseph, P. (2013, March 12). What doesn´t kill us. Huffington Post.

(3) Johnson, A. T. (2010). Essential concepts for biological engineers. Journal of Biological Engineering, 3(1), 3-15.

(4) James, W. (1914). The energies of men. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company.

(5) Dweck, Carol (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (p. 37-60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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