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What you can do when you fail

Don’t be fooled by the success stories and shortcuts you see on social media. It is true that success can happen overnight. But, many of these stories conceal years of hard work and failures. The old saying rings true, if it was easy, everyone would do it.

It is a brutal truth that we are not all gifted, we may not even have the potential to reach the results achieved by others. For example, we all have a natural tendency to want to look younger than we are. I read a wonderful quote one time. It said the goal is not to look young, but to look good for your age. It is a reminder that we have natural limitations, but those limitations do not prevent us from living a rich and satisfying life. We cannot turn back the clock or be reborn with greater natural talent, but we can still be our best. Sometimes we can be surprised at just how good that really is.

We may not be able to achieve everyone’s results, but we can achieve our results.

I am reminded of the story of a person who failed to climb Mount Everest. He simply said, ”I reached my top”. But reaching the top of our own Mount Everest does not come free. We must work at it, and sometimes that means picking ourselves up from failure and trying again.

Here is how to do it.


Make a commitment. Committing means two things, committing to the goal and committing to the work to achieve it. This is my personal downfall. I am great at committing to goals; the hard work? Not so much. But, like night and day, the goal and the effort cannot be separated.

But there is a secret. Working hard to achieve a goal does not mean being overly critical and punishing ourselves. We sometimes call a difficult goal a stretch goal. We have to go a little farther to get to it. That little extra distance translates into extra effort, more time, and the need to be more patient with both the process and with ourselves. Most of the time, achieving a goal is a marathon, not a sprint. We do not have to do everything at once. Try this. Just change one thing in your life. See how it goes, then change another.


When you fail, recommit. Recommitment is a process; it is married with self-assessment. We have to reflect, adjust, and re-commit. But not all recommitment comes after set-backs. We can set interim goals. At the end of an initial period, it can be helpful to pause, reflect on how well we are doing, and adjust our plans. You might need to revisit your progress at regular intervals until you find a consistent rhythm that works for you. It is ok, actually critically important, to enjoy and celebrate our progress along the way. We often focus too much on negative emotions. Enjoy your wins.

As you do this, see if you can be a mentor to yourself, rather than a critic. When you experience a set-back, what is your self-talk? Is your mind like a Drill Instructor yelling at you, criticizing you, and angrily demanding more effort? Or, is it like a running partner who circles back when you fall behind to run alongside you and encourage you?


Be willing to begin again, and again. I knew a counselor who had been through recovery for addiction, not once, not twice, not even three times, but seven times. I wonder where he found the courage and enough love for himself to persevere and survive. In the end, his painful journey became a lesson for others. Failure, especially addiction relapse, can cast a dark shadow over us and break the confidence we have in ourselves. Yet, he was able to find the faith and strength, however tenuous, to begin again and again.

We must face in a positive direction and take a step forward, even if it is small. If you are facing the right direction and moving, you are making progress. The key is simple - keep going. Did you stumble, fall? No problem. Come back to your commitment to yourself and let it help motivate and guide you. No one can take away your own ability to better yourself. Know that, if you are being active in your own life, you are contributing to your well-being and creating conditions for happiness, no matter how many times you have to begin again.


We have goals and we know that achieving them sometimes requires effort. But we do not have to see this effort as work. They say that doing something you have to do is work, but doing something you want to do is play. We have to find a way to shift our perspective, to make our lives more playful. Try this, when you wake up in the morning do not ask yourself, what do I need to do today? Rather, ask yourself, who do I need to be today? If we find a way to discover who we really are and express it in a positive, loving, and uplifting way to ourselves and others, then we will be more tolerant of the ups and downs we experience along our life’s journey.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

For more insights see my books and blog at



YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

(Image is from Artem Maltsev on Unsplash)

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