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6 ways that failure helps

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Can setbacks ever be a good thing? Sir Winston Churchill noted that that “failure is not fatal” – but for many students, mistakes are equated to social suicide. Something to avoid at all costs.

This fear of failure can stop them for stepping out of their comfort zones. So what does the research say? Was Churchill right? Is there life after failure?

There is a fantastic scene from the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman tries to explain to a rather drunk and jubilant Tom Hanks that it is a mistake to get too high after a success or too low after a failure.

Why is it a mistake to get too low after a failure? Because if managed correctly, there are six ways that failure can actually help:

A learning opportunity

A recent study found that children are very accurate at judging how their parents perceive failure (read more about these findings on our blog). For parents who view failure as a big bad event, as a judgement on your ability and something to be avoided, their children were more likely to have a fixed mindset (which is the belief that intelligence and ability are set in stone and can’t be improved). This mindset is linked to avoiding and rejecting feedback as well as coping worse with transitions.

Research on teenagers has found that those who are motivated by learning and mastering a subject, compared to those who are extrinsically motivated by rewards, display higher levels of emotional control before an exam. As well as this, they have higher levels of confidence and achieve better grades.

Students with this mastery orientation are more likely to view setbacks as an opportunity to learn and improve. A painful but valuable speed bump in the road. Those that are motivated by social comparison (i.e. status) or outside rewards are more prone to stressful and negative reactions to failure.


6 Ways That Failure Can Help

Resilience and determination

In a fascinating study, researchers interviewed gold medal Olympic champions about how they developed the resilience needed to succeed in their sport. Many of them identified that their road to success has not been simple nor straightforward, but that they had to come to view their setbacks as opportunities for growth.

At the time of a setback, this can be difficult to appreciate, as emotions are often running high. This can cloud judgement and impair learning. This is especially true for teenagers, as their brain works differently to adults. Once the dust has settled, asking yourself questions such as ‘what would I do differently next time?’ and ‘what have I learnt from this experience?’ are good starting points to use the setback in a more positive way.


There is an often used phrase by elite athletes after a failure. They say: ‘Minor Setback? Major Comeback’.

Though unpleasant at the time, failures often provide a very strong boost to someone’s motivation levels. The well-known Michael Jordan video below gives a great illustration of this:

There are no guarantees that a setback will make someone more motivated. Their personality, the group norms and their environment will all play a factor in how they respond. What is not in doubt is that, for some, the setback will imprint on them, helping them drive themselves on to a higher level than previously experienced.

Boost your students’ motivation with training that introduces them to the seven key habits of successful people.

Develop compassion

Recently, researchers have found that people who suffer more adversity show more compassion to others. This makes sense when you think about it; if you know how failure feels when you experience it, you are probably more likely to empathise with others when they experience setbacks.

The authors of this study do note that their findings only show a correlation with adversity and compassion, and that one does not necessarily cause the other. However, they suggest this is probably the case as it ‘chimes with other related research’, where for example, those who experience for suffering ‘show greater altruism and sympathy for disaster victims’.

Ask for help

Although it shouldn’t take a setback for someone to ask for help, it often does. In the previously mentioned study on Olympic champions and resilience, researchers also found that accessing the support and advice of people around you is a key way to help develop resilience. For more information, check out our blog “Why it’s good to ask for help“.

This one of the reasons why successful people often build a team around them. Asking for help is frequently seen by many teenagers (often boys, in our experience) as a sign of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we can help educate them on how and when to ask for help, they will likely reap many of the benefits.

Make the final achievement even sweeter

Experiencing lows can really help you appreciate your highs. As Sir Winston Churchill also said, ‘success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. Someone’s success at the end of their bumpy road makes all that enthusiasm worth it.

It is interesting to note that many Olympic gold medalists do not even medal at their first Games. It takes years of experience, setbacks and training to achieve one’s dreams. But when that success is reached, it feels all the sweeter because of it.

Final thought

Failure is not something to strive for; but it is something that can be learnt from and used effectively. These are key skills that we can teach students.

There is a great quote that says ‘real failure is someone who has blundered but not cashed in on the experience’. By teaching them how to cash in on the experience, hopefully we can help them develop skills that aid resilience, motivation and learning, and therefore reduce the chances of them making the same mistakes again in the future.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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