Learning to Fail Gracefully

Sarah McMahon
4 min readMar 3, 2023

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I’m not writing about failure today because I failed at anything in particular recently. I’ve failed at plenty, though. I’ve dropped out of races, gone through dozens of job interviews that never resulted in offers, submitted my writing to publications only to have it rejected time after time after time. I’ve failed tests and I’ve failed in the workplace and I’ve failed in relationship with others. There is no area of life that goes untouched by failure, so we may as well embrace it. Failure, to me, is synonymous with persistence. You only fail if you fail to try again.

According to Professor Martin Covington of The University of California, the fear of failure is directly linked to our sense of self-worth. Professor Covington’s research on students, published in the Handbook of Motivation at School, found that one way we protect our self-worth is by believing we are competent, and by convincing others of it, too. The ability to achieve is therefore critical in maintaining self-worth. Failing to perform can make us feel unable and unworthy. We often hear “fake it ’til you make it,” but unless you believe that you are competent, no amount of “faking it” will ever help you make it.

If you happen to fail once, that may be an easy enough shot at your self-worth to overcome. But what if you fail over and over again? Professor Covington also found that those who repeatedly fail will engage in specific practices to preserve their self-worth, such as making excuses for failing, or engaging in defense mechanism (a common one is blaming others for their failure).

Learning to accept failure and rejection has served me well in my career and in my life as an athlete. When I dropped out of a100 miler last summer, I signed up for another on the car ride home. And when I don’t make a sale, or when someone I cold call hangs up on me, or when a prospective customer abandons all interest, I evaluate what happened, reassess my approach, and move on. Moving on from failures and rejection is the secret to failing gracefully. Nobody cares about your failures as much as you do, so the less you internalize them, the less they will influence and impact your future attempts.

Failure is a demoralizing and upsetting experience but if you can learn to…