How to Grow Through Failure

How to Grow Through Failure

How to Grow Through Failure

I’ve skied just about every winter weekend for the past thirty eight years. Skiing is one of my great joys in life, and I take my skiing very seriously. In high school and college I was a ski racer, and now, on the weekends, I work as a ski instructor.

There are three levels of certification available to instructors – Levels I, II, and III. I am currently at Level II and, last year, I attempted the Level III ski exam.

I prepared diligently for the exam. I skied with my old coaches, practiced technical maneuvers, and took classes from master instructors. On the day of the exam, I was excited, a little nervous, and confident. I skied well.

Or so I thought.

When the results were posted, my name was not on the “passed” list. I had failed.

I was crushed. When I saw that I had failed, I pleaded with the examiners to let me re-test on the spot. I knew I could pass, I told them, just tell me what I did wrong and let me try again. Please! When they said no, I became angry.

Here’s what’s most interesting: When I followed my own Four Seconds advice and paused to take a breath and really consider what I was feeling, I found something deeper than the anger, sadness, and disappointment. In fact, I found their source.


Which was made significantly worse by the way I reacted. Now I didn’t just feel shame about failing the exam, I also felt shame about how I acted after failing the exam.

My shame came from my self concept: I am not the kind of skier who fails a ski exam. And I am certainly not the kind of person who whines and pleads if he ever does fail.

Except, apparently, that’s exactly the kind of person I am. Hence the shame.

The danger of shame is that it can stop us in our tracks and prevent us from taking further risks. But what happens if we remove the shame? What’s left?

Almost immediately, I got to work. I trained, I learned the skills I was missing. I practiced.

One thing my failure taught me is that my skills regress in an exam situation. Under pressure, I perform below my normal level of performance. So in order to succeed in a clutch moment, I need to perform at a higher level than necessary during training.

Which means my everyday skiing got radically better.

This is true for many of us in relation to most skills. If we want to communicate well in the heat of a critical moment, we need to be even stronger communicators when we’re relaxed.

But there’s more: Beyond the motivation to get better, my failure gave me the opportunity to cultivate much deeper relationships.

On one level, it’s straightforward: I got help from master skiers and teachers. And, while they were all people I have known for years and with whom I have close relationships, our focused practice together deepened our bond. They had an opportunity to teach, I had an opportunity to learn, and we all felt richer in the process.

On a deeper level, we became far more intimate. Because I felt shame about my failure, I felt vulnerable. And, it turns out, we connect much more profoundly in our vulnerability than in our strength. When they offered me their compassion, love, and care – and when I was able to receive it – we became closer still.

I also became a better leader. I grew in my ability to connect with others because, in feeling my own vulnerability, I am better able to empathize with others who are vulnerable. I don’t need to guard myself from being “infected” by the failure of others like so many of us do; I can be there for people the way others were there for me. I learned how to support others in their moments of failure. I became more compassionate. More human. And that makes me a more powerful leader.

So my skiing got better, my relationships became richer, and my leadership grew stronger.

Failure is a powerful enabler. And the only thing standing in the way of our reaping its benefits is the feeling of shame.

So, how do we solve for shame? Try this counter-intuitive response: Feel it.

The uncomfortable emotions of failure – like shame – are physical sensations in our bodies and they are there whether we choose to feel them or not.

We can block them, but, when we do, they come out in insidious ways: We protect ourselves with anger (The system is broken!). Or blame (The examiner did poor demonstrations and I just copied him!). Or denial (There’s some mistake!). Or defeat (I’m giving up!). Or repression (Who cares?).

And, while those reactions may defend against feeling the discomfort of failure, they simultaneously block us from harvesting its rewards.

But, if we allow ourselves to feel shame – which takes tremendous emotional courage – we will realize something important and profound:

It’s not all that bad.

You will survive the shame of failure. It’s just a feeling, like any other feeling. You can tolerate it.

And, when you do, you are free to capture the upside: better performance, closer relationships, and more powerful leadership.

One more upside: success after failure leads to a much bigger celebration.

I re-took the exam this year and passed.

When I did, one of the examiners shook my hand, congratulated me, and then said, “Failing that exam last year made you a much better skier. I never say this to people, but I’m glad that you failed last year.”

The truth is, so am I.

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  • Alan Allard May 11, 2015 Reply

    Peter, your post was riveting. I can relate to your observation of “this is not who I am, except it is who I am!” May I have your permission to reprint this in my newsletter, with a short bio of you and your website information?

    • Peter Bregman May 12, 2015 Reply

      Yes – thanks . . .

  • Pam Moore May 12, 2015 Reply

    Can’t think why it was rejected. While I was reading at least 3 people popped into my head to share, never mind myself. I found it helpful

    Maybe it’s some irony. Something else to learn from the rejections? Look forward to part 2

    Kind Regards

    • Peter Bregman May 12, 2015 Reply

      Thanks so much Pam. I really appreciate hearing that.

      One site did not give a reason. The site which takes all my other articles did though – they felt that I’ve written about failure before and this didn’t add enough new to the conversation – in content, advice, or form.

      Also that, while the failure was big for me, the level of shame I described, the level of compassion and love I needed from my ski instructors, the profound effect on my relationships and my leadership all felt like too much weight to put onto that particular failure.

      I want to say that I do see the editor’s point. On the other hand, I also want to say that the nature of shame is such that it is very personal. People reveal things to me all the time (and I’m sure to you) that they are ashamed of and – while I understand their feeling and empathize – I don’t feel like they need to be ashamed of it. In other words, I don’t judge them the way that they judge themselves or think others will judge them. But, again, that’s the nature of shame – it’s very personal.

      The last thing I want to say is that – in terms of having the piece rejected – I’m OK with it. I respect their editorial perspective and I think it’s good to build the muscle of moving on after rejection. And it helped to print the piece now and in this way. And to know that you and others read it and cared enough to comment on – so a sincere thank you for that!

  • Sue Pridgen May 12, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter,
    You asked for an opinion on the article you wrote. Simple terms means your article about Failure Failed 2 times from 2 different sites. Just as you failed in the example in the article.This one was about failure. Peter, you’re a coach. You coach those that need help in ways of improving on how not to fail. Most everything I have read about you, there has been very little failure. So when you wrote the article, yes it showed how failure can effect your emotions. You referred to it as shame. You may have felt shame. You reacted in a way you had never done before. Pleading, anger, denial. Eventually you worked on it. And in a year passed. I don’t think it was the article. It was the example within the article. Yes it proved that you are human. That you can fail and react in those kinds of emotions. But for most people in a less (elaborate) environment. Like passing an exam for a promotion. And not a matter of recreation. The emotions would be more of disappointment in themselves and maybe someone else. Then anger, and shame if made known to others. Very seldom have you failed. To hear of you failing is almost like trying to imagine a fairy tale. How long did it take you to get past it. You were on vacation to a certain degree. That’s not what most of your customers or the people below you consider failure. Maybe a set-back. They know you will over come it. That’s you. That’s Peter. Just a different example. This is just coming from someone that has had to stop. Which feels like a failure. I am not doing what I want for reasons beyond my control. You can and do take control – Your recent book. I hope this doesn’t make you angry. The comment above wanted to use it. But he is way up on your level. If you don’t like this then just delete it. I have no problem with it. I can humbly understand.

    • Peter Bregman May 12, 2015 Reply

      Hi Sue – The editors agreed with you 🙂

      The one thing I want to say is that failure is very personal – It’s like I mentioned in the post above about shame – what’s failure to one person may not be seen as failure by another. I don’t compare my failures to anyone else’s – there will always be people who have more drastic failures, and others who have more superficial ones. But that doesn’t relate to how we experience our own failures – or how other people experience theirs.

      That said, I want to take a risk here and say that I do hear in your comment that you have had failure in your life that feels very profound and I am sorry to hear that – I know that it is very hard and I can feel – even through your comment – the struggle you face. I am sorry.

  • Elaine Wilson May 12, 2015 Reply

    Interesting. Made me think of the role of HR. When we succeed we are promoted or at least keep our jobs. When we fail… we often fail “alone” at work. In your example you had your “support team” : the ski instructors etc. At work when we fail.. we daren’t speak to HR. Are we then missing the point in HR? They should be our support system when we “fail”. Re-guide us, re-motivate us, convince us that we can “ski better” next time. Surely a strong HR support would help us all achieve more, even when we fail. Then churn would be really reduced and we’d be using l/t relations based on confidence with staff. Nice idea.

    • Yuvarajah May 12, 2015 Reply

      Hi Elaine. I feel sorry that you have such an HR to whom you can’t turn for support help. Please be assured most HR are not that cold or hopeless. I am living proof. Visit my blog It’s not much but… just to pacify that there are good HR people who care.

      BTW, do me a favour. Approach your HR and tell them how you perceive and feel towards them. If you have peers or other fellow workers who feel the same way as your do, then drag them along. Have a open candid dialogue session. Everyone could do with honest feedback, no matter how painful or unpleasant it may feel. Just tell them that they need HR to listen to their grievance or help facilitate workplace challenges. Here’s simple 3 step feedback tip:

      1. Tell HR why they need to hear the feedback. Break it to them how it can help overcome a major shortcoming in their responsibility towards employee well being and morale.
      2. Spill the beans – problem.
      3. Discuss towards a solution.

      All the best.

    • Linda May 12, 2015 Reply

      Hello Elaine
      I work in Learning & Development as part of HR & Development. Many people come to us for the sort of support you’re talking about – perhaps you have some L&D colleagues in your company who would be willing to offer support where their HR colleagues may not?
      We tend to have people who have ‘failed’ or whose performance is perceived as being insufficient, sent to us for ‘fixing’. We try to help them to understand what they can do to change the perception and deal with their feelings of shame/failure, and how to go back and work with the manager they are being performance managed by, etc. Often the manager hasn’t actually defined what is needed for the person to be perceived as performing well. There’s so many layers in this ‘failure’ lark.
      Great article Peter. I recognise myself and my reactions – not comfortable.

  • Mapaseka May 12, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter,

    Why was article rejected?

  • Yuvarajah May 12, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter,
    Meaningful sharing. It takes humility and guts to share failures and accompanying emotions, especially not so positive ones! Coach or not, it takes a bigger person on to admit fallibility.

    Failing is part of life that makes us to try again and become better. When we make meaning and appreciate up and downs of the journey, the destination means less. I too came to realize often that there is no shame in failure. Yes, our self esteem or ego gets dented momentarily but if we remain positive and take it in stride, it will come to pass.

    BTW, did you get to inquire as to why your article was not published?. What was it that they found offensive or unappealing?. Shouldn’t that be left to the readers to judge or interpret ?. We aren’t living in a prefect world, after all.

  • Cathy May 12, 2015 Reply

    Wow, this is me. Failure and frustration lead me to this reaction, too. Ironically, I probably learned this from my mother. 🙁

    I’ve never thought about it this way, but it makes sense. I’ve gotten better over the years, but there is always more to be done.

    This item made me think of an example you shared in 18 Minutes. The woman who became angry and flew off the handle in times of stress/overload. I wonder if there is a place where these two examples collide?

    By the way Yuvarajah, our HR department isn’t very supportive in times of trouble either. 🙁

    Thank you for sharing your failure, and shame. Continued success to you.

  • Mariann Snyder May 12, 2015 Reply

    Sue Pridgen’s comment is incredibly insightful. Your average Joe doesn’t think of “shame” in the context of failing a ski exam. Your set-up could’ve started somehow with your reaction to failure, which, in my view, is your intention. You were ashamed by your reaction to failing and ultimately pulled it out. It’s less about shame than admitting I’m not the best, I missed a deadline, it’s my fault — all of which I thought you captured well here:

    “We protect ourselves with anger (The system is broken!). Or blame (The examiner did poor demonstrations and I just copied him!). Or denial (There’s some mistake!). Or defeat (I’m giving up!). Or repression (Who cares?).”

    We simply need to accept responsibility when we don’t measure up sometimes — and be okay with it WHILE we work to improve, without blaming anyone else. “The buck stops here” is not a popular concept in business. But when I witness it, I so admire it.

    • Peter Bregman May 12, 2015 Reply

      Hi Mariann – thanks so much for your comment – I particularly like the way you said this: We simply need to accept responsibility when we don’t measure up sometimes — and be okay with it WHILE we work to improve, without blaming anyone else.

      I think that’s profound. Thank you.

  • Mary May 12, 2015 Reply

    Thanks, Peter! Looking in such an articulate way at both the shame of failure and the benefits of failure has helped me personally look differently at my own fear of failure. I am also going to use this article for discussions with business leaders in companies like Microsoft whom I tutor in English as a Second Language.

  • Václav Dekanovský May 14, 2015 Reply

    Thank you for the great example that even after many years of doing something one can fail. I like how you used that experience to transform yourself. I’ll use similar approach my recept failure as well. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Andrew May 19, 2015 Reply

    Great post Peter, on what are actually very profound topics – shame and vulnerability. They lead exactly to the outward behaviours you described. Your willingness and courage to share personal stories never ceases to impress me.
    I’d also suggest Brene Brown’s talks on TED as a follow up to your points about failure, vulnerability and shame.

  • Nigel Wraight May 23, 2015 Reply

    Great Post, Adversity is a great teacher, although you might not enjoy the pain of the lesson, the lesson needs to be learned to grow.

  • Alistair October 8, 2015 Reply

    Brilliant one. I’ve never heard failure thus explained.

  • Diana December 28, 2015 Reply

    Mr. Bregman,
    You’re experience has helped me understand the emotions I’ve felt from the fear and shame of failure. I didn’t realize that I have been a prisoner of failure for 12 years. Thank you for your article. I realize it really isn’t all that bad! I can still breathe, I’m alive! I can begin to build relationships and practice at doing better and being better.

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