Fail Forward: How Setbacks Can Fuel Future Success

A reporter once asked Thomas Edison how he felt failing one thousand times. He replied,

“I didn’t fail one thousand times. The light bulb is an invention that requires 1000 steps. I have learned 1000 ways how not to make a light bulb.”

Thomas Edison must have mastered the art of failing forward.

Here’s something crucial to note about failure!

It is the learning when you fail that deserves celebration, not the failure itself. Failure without lessons learned is a failure.

Failure is not a joke; it is expensive to fail. It’s not fashionable as well. The truth is people who shun failure deny themselves the opportunity to reinvent and innovate.

Let’s face it, we must have failed at one point in life, but we chose to stay down or fail forward.

Can Setbacks Fuel Future Success?

In our article, “6 Reasons Why Embracing Failure Helps You Succeed,” we reiterated that failure is an incredible driver to success.

1. Failure Teaches Better Than the Best Teacher

“The bigger your failure, the bigger your chance of achieving success.”

What’s the rationale behind this fact?

It’s because with every failure comes life lessons that you may never learn from the world’s best university. Failure helps you prioritize what you normally ignore. Perhaps you have been ignoring some bad habits because they are not big red flags yet. Failure will enable you to confront your fears and tendencies in a way you wouldn’t have if you had not failed.

Here’s another quick one!

If you have not failed before, you definitely missed the opportunities to reflect and figure out your motivations.

2. Failure Makes You Strong and Wise

The wisdom and strength that you exude when you share what life has taught are what I’m talking about here. The lessons become a significant part of your journey and success.

It’s like the making of a movie. Sometimes, you miss the line while acting the script, and you rehearse. Every rehearsal is an opportunity to become better. Likewise, each setback is an opportunity to develop the courage to fail forward.

3. Failure Makes Your Story Compelling

Your obstacles produce the most incredible story ever told—stories of how you surmount your challenges and achieve the success you desire. These kinds of stories impact and give others hope.

It would be uninteresting to reflect at the end of life and realize you have never failed. It would most likely depict a life of mediocrity and complacency. Without failure, you cannot tell compelling stories or record noteworthy feats.

4. Failure Sharpens You and Causes You to Grow

It’s like an iron that has not been sharpened by iron (challenges). Setback signals the need to grow. This is because failure can shape and mold you to fit the personality that matches your destiny. Why not look beyond your present predicament and focus on the person of your dream?

5. Failure Makes You Fit to Pursue Your Goals

Failing forward despite setbacks means you believe you can. It means you can move on despite obstacles.

This resolution helps you always to stay fit to pursue your goals. The judgment and opinions of others can no longer sway you. You are more resolute and committed to seeing your goals come to reality.

9 Tips to Fail Forward

You can leverage failure to fuel your growth in any aspect of your life. Here are 9 proven tips to fail forward.

1. Determine the Possible Challenges

Begin by determining the exact stumbling blocks between you and your success. When you think about your success, negativity becomes a challenge that can assault your mind.

What if I fail? What if I don’t make it to the end?

Go ahead and list all the factors that could cause you to fail. Write them in your journal. When you are done, you have a list of potential limitations to your success.

Now, take them one after the other and reflect the best ways to overcome them. Activate your action plan. Attack each limitation until you clear all and achieve your next level of success.

2. Develop a Strategy

When you keep aiming at a goal and you keep failing, refuse self-degenerating thoughts. Instead, assess and change your strategy. You don’t have to change your goals as long as they are SMART GOALS; you only need to change your approach.

Figure out what you’re missing and design a system to avoid future mistakes. Find an accountability partner or a mentor to share input and ideas on your strategy. Commit at least 10-15 hours refining your strategy. Keep positive people around you and think positively.

3. Educate Yourself

It will be great if you can research about what lies ahead of you. Find out if someone has passed through it and learn from their experience.

Thomas Edison made 1000 attempts; how did he manage the failure? What can I do to overcome anxiety and depression that comes with failing?

Equip yourself to surmount challenges when they arise.

4. Seek Advice

Isolation is a killer of success. Don’t isolate yourself from people that can help you. Talk to someone either your mentor or an accountability partner about the circumstances.

If you had the opportunity to meet Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison, what questions would you ask? Perhaps, how Lincoln led the nation through one of the most significant moments in the history of the United States despite his inner troubles. How Edison failed forward until his dream of a light bulb for humanity came to reality.

Ask your contacts to point out limitations and the mistakes they made. Leverage this experience to shorten your learning curves. You can also enroll in courses designed to help you overcome obstacles.

5. Reflect on Your WHYs

We wrote in detail on how to utilize the 5 WHYs to get to unravel the possible cause of your obstacles. It’s time to put this knowledge to practice.

Someone once said if your WHY is big enough, the HOW will show up. Take some minutes to write and reflect on why you want to overcome obstacles and achieve your next level of success. Think yourself into the new feeling, esteem, and lifestyle you desire. This is called visualization!

6. Live Life With No Regrets

It will be worse to live this cosmos, regretting you didn’t give it your best shot.

You will die someday. Why not die empty? The global average lifespan is 72 years. That means you have, on average, about 26,280 days to live.

Value each day and refuse to live your life by default, but by design. Manage your time effectively and live every second of your life deliberately.

Pursue your goals. Take calculated risks, and know that every risk comes with failure. However, you cannot become successful without taking risks.

7. Celebrate Your Small Wins

Every achievement takes you one step closer to your success. While waiting for the final day, take out time to celebrate those small victories.

Perhaps you have completed your weekly to-do list; you can pamper yourself. You may visit the cinema, attend a yoga class or visit the spa. That way, you will generate momentum to surmount the next obstacles.

8. Learn From Each Day

Every day is an opportunity to show up in the school of life. Show up to learn from life’s instructor—failure. Open yourself to events and experiences as they present you the opportunity to learn.

Your greatest teacher in life is ‘failure.’ The more you fail, the less you become afraid of failing as you would have transcended your setbacks and emerged stronger and fit.

9. Accept Reality

When you fail, admit! Admit that there’s nothing you can do about the failure. Accept that life must continue, and that’s what failing forward is all about.

Acceptance helps you to make progress. It helps you to gain liberty so you can figure out the next step to take.

Final Thoughts

Above all, maintain a positive attitude. Your attitude is fundamental to your outcome. Always preempt obstacles, and don’t let life happen to you.

Refuse to live your life by default, but by design. Seek counsel from past overcomers and learn from their experience.

Keep moving. Don’t stop, and celebrate every little achievement. Fail forward, and fail fast!

More Tips on How to Fail Forward

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).

The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.

And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.

And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”

Generally speaking, we all need motivation.

An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.

Why? It’s simple.

There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.

The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:

“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:

Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.

One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.

By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.

Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”

In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.

Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.

Find intrinsic motivation with self-efficacy.

It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours

2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose

Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you? 

And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it?

Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.

When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.

4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.

Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.

For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.

Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.

5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)

The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).

If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.

All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .

6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason

Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.

The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.

A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.

The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.

And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.

Final Thoughts

Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:

“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”

Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.

Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.

In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.

And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?

Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.

More Tips to Boost Motivation

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