Self Confidence from Failure

I don’t know about you, but I dislike the word failure. It’s very negative and, to me, sounds quite final. However…

Failure and rejection won’t kill you. You may think that it does and it may feel like it almost will just after it has happened. But it won’t. Instead it makes you stronger. It makes you more confident in yourself.

That’s a quote from Henrik Edberg on his ever successful Positivity blog.  failureCoincidentally I linked to him the last time I devoted a post to the topic – Overcome a Fear of Failure.  On that occasion Henrik had been quoting Oprah; this time he has 10 great quotes and argues that by failing you build an inner strength and grow as a person.

Do we have to learn from failure?

I‘ve also been drawn to another blog post on the topic, this time by Dragos Roua, who says

I started a personal development blog because I know every imaginable thing about failure. I’ve been there so many times, I can’t even remember. I had failures in business, I had failures in personal and social relationships, in school, in my job (back when I had one) and, generally speaking, wherever you’ll find a consistent life niche, you can bet all your money that I had at least one major failure there. And you’ll win big time.

In his post, Learning from Failure, Dragos sets out his 6 stages of personal development – very much based on learning from the lessons of failing. I did suggest in a comment on that post that you’d need events to be pretty big, as in his examples (e.g. business failure) to have this sort of effect.

Perhaps my problem is I’ve never suffered such life events. My life hasn’t been a bed of roses, but my early problems from a lack of confidence meant I avoided things. I didn’t suffer the angst of rejection or a broken heart, because I didn’t have the nerve to speak ask any girl for a date until I got lucky and met my wife, in my mid twenties!

But last week I effectively failed 4 young adults. I interviewed them for a job which they were all keen for, well suited and generally interview well. But there was only one post and the job went to the 5th candidate who ticked more boxes.

Did they gain confidence from the experience, come out stronger as Henrik suggests? From speaking to them afterwards to tell them they were unsuccessful, absolutely not. I cannot imagine how being told there is someone better than you would ever be confidence building.

Does Unsuccessful = Failure?

In Overcome a Fear of Failure I said

No one wants to fail. No one enjoys failure. I’m sure Thomas Edison would have been more than happy if his early experiments worked – or The Beatles had they been signed by Decca! The difference between those at the top and the rest of us is whether we persist after failure – how desperately we want to achieve something.

That quote does miss one important point. At some point people do give up.  The Beatles and Edison ultimately succeeded because they had talent that ultimately paid off.  Many bands try for years to get recording contracts – but will never get one because they are not good enough or not creating what people want to buy. Likewise people have all kinds of crazy inventions that don’t have the significance of the light bulb.

Definitions of failure effectively put it as the opposite of success, being unsuccessful. However, failure is a far more emotive word. It does imply an ending. When I spoke to the interviewees above, I said they had been unsuccessful – not “you’ve failed”!

Don’t be afraid of  making mistakes or not getting what you wanted (being unsuccessful) – recognise these things will happen from time to time if you step outside your comfort zone. And stepping outside your comfort zone, learning to cope with the feeling of uncertainty that this brings, is one of the key ways to build self confidence.

Do we need to fail?

Several of Henrik’s quotes suggest that overcoming failure, and not giving up,  is part of being successful. Another such quote is from Thomas Edison himself:-

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

I have to say I don’t agree with him. Part of being successful is being able to reflect and learn; to be able to plan, gather information and make good decisions. Yes, knowing what you want – having goals – is essential. But knowing when to adjust them in light of experience is as important.

“Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don’t fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgement, repeated every day. ~ Jim Rohn

I don’t think the concept of failure is useful in personal development. At worst it will lower self esteem, rather than raise self confidence.  But what do you think? Do you think its is an essential stepping stone, without which success has no foundations?  And do you agree with Henrik, and think it does build self confidence?  Please comment below…

photo by meddygarnet on flickr

JM March 29, 2010 at 6:08 pm


I really like this post! That’s an interesting little concept, getting self-confidence from failure. I never thought about it like that.

I guess that can pretty much be from just about every aspect of one’s life. Trying to get a promotion from work, making more money from their business, or even getting more out of a relationship, or marriage. Nice post and keep them coming.

Kind Regards,
.-= JM´s last blog ..You Don’t Always Have To Go Eat Somewhere Nice But… =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 7:27 am

Thanks for your comment and compliments. The more I think about it, the more I feel that failure has no role in building confidence. But others disagree!

Corinne Edwards March 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm

David – this is so true –

” Part of being successful is being able to reflect and learn; to be able to plan, gather information and make good decisions. Yes, knowing what you want – having goals – is essential. But knowing when to adjust them in light of experience is as important.”

Failure always tempts up to throw the baby out with the bath water. But the learning always stays with any failure.
.-= Corinne Edwards´s last blog ..BOOK PROMOTION – Your book everywhere on the web =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 7:32 am

Thanks for your comment and reflections. In some ways I’m trying to move away from using the word failure when things don’t work out or we make mistakes. And do we always learn from mistakes? Some people do the same things over and over even when they don’t work!

Betty March 29, 2010 at 10:11 pm

I really enjoyed your article. It seems we grow the greatest amount after we fail if we can learn from our failure. I recently came across an interesting video clip called “Act As If”. It’s about a basketball coach who insists her player play like champions and when they start acting like champions they become just that. Just by believing in themselves they gain self confidence.
.-= Betty´s last blog ..bookwormplace: Currently working through -The Ultimate Boomer Business Launch Workbook…very comprehensive on starting a business. =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 7:34 am

Thanks for your comment and compliments. I totally agree that self belief is a great foundation for self confidence.

Debbie March 29, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I like to look at failure as growing. If you want to call it failure remember to fail forward, so it is easier to get up and go again.

Really though isn’t failure just learning that that didn’t work, so you have to try something else until you find what does work.

the only way failure should be brought into the picture is when one quites and doesn’t get up and try again. That is true failure.
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Embracing Change to Choose Happiness =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Thanks for your comment and reflections. I like the concept of failing forward, if you need to fail at all. With the last point, you still need to have a point where quitting is the right thing to do. I disagree with all the quotes and advice that seems to imply you can never quit without failing.

Debbie March 31, 2010 at 12:14 am


You may not want to continue in the direction your going, but that is not failure. that is thinking smart, learning from it and going in another direction.

Say you have a blog or website and it just doesn’t seem to be working. You can still have the blog and website you just might want to find a new niche. This is what I mean by not quitting.

.-= Debbie´s last blog ..Embracing Change to Choose Happiness =-.

Bruce "the Mid-Life Mentor" March 30, 2010 at 2:09 am

Failure is painful. I don’t think you learn much from it unless you see it as part of the game. There are large failures – you don’t do what you should for those you say you love. Then there are small failures – those that sting a little like starting to fix the sink and ending up spending as much as you would have on a plumber and sometimes having to call one anyway. I think not accomplishing what you set out to do is painful in various ways, but does not have to mean we can never accomplish a thing but some things are just better left alone for experts in that area. I think trying and failing can mean we need more knowledge and experience – driving a car successfully for instance. It can also mean that what we wanted was unrealistic and not achievable. I was a wrestler but I will never be a world or Olympic champion. I never had the talent. I just was good, not excellent. Did I fail? Depends on how you look at it. I loved it and wept when I knew the match I had just wrestled was my last in competition. I was never a great champion but I did not fail. Failure seems to be a mix of expectation and ego. If you like life, you compete and sometimes do less than you expected. It stings, but as long as you draw breath it isn’t the end.
.-= Bruce “the Mid-Life Mentor”´s last blog ..PREVENTION-What do you think it is? =-.

David March 30, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Thanks for your extremely informative comment. It brings to the fore something that I didn’t think of when I wrote that post – how much our concept of failure reflects other peoples expectations. There are many successful sportsmen, say at tennis and golf, who never win a “major” but have lucrative careers playing sport. Quite often they can be labelled “failures” for not winning a major, despite their success in sustaining a professional career.

Kate Irwin March 31, 2010 at 9:30 am

Great post. It is so true that fear of failure holds us back from taking any risks – which themselves lead to personal growth, development and improved happiness and confidence.
Overcoming this fear of failure is a huge step towards personal growth. More often than not the consequences of ‘failure’ aren’t nearly as bad as we imagine them to be!
Many thanks,

David April 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Thanks for your comment. I agree, whilst I question whether we should get bogged down with whether we need to fail to learn, this “fear of failure” does massively interfere with how many of us function.

Sherri--Being the Change I Wish to See March 31, 2010 at 10:58 pm


If we never try, we will never fail, but we will never succeed either. If we keep dong the same things over and over again expecting a different result, we will never succeed, and others will question our mental health.

Thomas Edison said, after years of not producing a working light bulb, that he learned thousands of ways not to make a light bulb. He was learning with each failed experiment, and he made changes and kept trying until he had a working light bulb.

I think that’s one advantage of being a research scientist or an inventor. You don’t expect to succeed on your first try, or perhaps for tens, hundreds or thousands of tries. But you learn something from each unsuccessful experiment. Being a scientist also means you carefully observe what is going on, and that you study one variable at a time. Then you study your results and decide how to move forward. You have to find out which tasks (variables) have big effects and small effects, which move you forward and which go nowhere.

When I was a research chemist, it took me 10 years and several technology improvements to finally reach a goal of drastically reducing the error range of one test. Each time a new machine came out with more capabilities, we tried that test on it. Then we would work with it for awhile to the new machine’s limits until we either got the results we were after or learned that machine still didn’t have the capabilities we sought. But we learned a lot from those experiments. We knew we were on the right track, we just hadn’t gotten to our destination yet. I worked on and off on that test for 10 years before the technology caught up with the goal. In the meantime, we also automated the test.

I had a bunch of other work to do, so the waiting time wasn’t empty by any means, and other work often taught me something I needed for yet other work. Related work or tasks can form a synergy that teaches you more than each would if you worked on them in isolation.

I was working on applied research, not basic, so I had the advantage of knowing there were the old fashioned ways of doing something or things that worked from which to start. We reduced error ranges, reduced the time a test took to run, automated tests to free up personnel to get more done in the same period of time, used different equipment in new ways, etc. But the one thing we never expected was for something to work the first time, or even after a bunch of tries.

It’s important to be persistent, but if you keep trying different things and your results aren’t moving you forward or showing you a better direction to try next, what you want to do may not be possible, or it just may not be possible today. It may become easily done in the future. I recommend learning and not forgetting what you’ve learned. Keep your data and analysis. It may be useful in the future.

.-= Sherri–Being the Change I Wish to See´s last blog ..Ugandan kill-the-gays bill part 12: Family leader Bob Hunter interview =-.

David April 1, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Thanks for your comment. I should emphasise I’m very pro science and get exasperated by all the unscientific crap (LoA, astrology, homeopathy…) that people believe in. And in the process of science things will be more black and white, pass or fail.
I agree about being persistent, but learning from what has gone before. Thanks for this reflection

Sherri Frost | Self Hypnosis April 5, 2010 at 2:56 am

Unsuccessful does not equal failure, it simply means that we are still learning. We will learn more from the mistakes that we make more than successes. So if we can change our attitude and welcome the mistakes and learn from them – we’ll me closer to reaching our goals.
.-= Sherri Frost | Self Hypnosis´s last blog ..Self Hypnosis for Weight Loss: Is It Safe? =-.

David May 1, 2010 at 11:31 am

Thanks for your comment, I agree with your thoughts on learning from mistakes. David

Madeline April 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Thanks for this article. This is something that is worth to get a big lesson. I was once had a low personality person before because I grew up in a broken family. My father left us and my mother died after 5 years. I stayed at my Aunt’s house but she was too tough and never gave me the attention I was needed, everything I did was not done perfectly. Since then on, I felt everything I did was wrong. I am big FAILURE. I felt rejected and very failure in life.. I came from a broken family and from that experienced I am afraid to have commitment for marriage because I might have the same situation of failures. Thanks to a friend who patiently shared me the things that I should have to reflect with to become a person with positive perspective in life. I really appreciate this article for I am once a person with a low self confidence because of the past failure in life.
.-= Madeline´s last blog ..12 Month Car Leasing: How It Can Help You Save Money =-.

David May 1, 2010 at 11:29 am

Thanks for sharing your story. Whatever our past experiences we can still approach life with a positive attitude and with our head held high. In essence you were never a failure, but had learnt to look at life that way.

Ann Bernard April 30, 2010 at 5:25 pm

There are so many factors that play in to “failure”. My failures have all been business related where the factors are even far greater. Be it timing, the market, cash flow, having a right network of people, and on and on. Another factor to not failing in business is LUCK. Some people are naturally lucky, but the majority of people have to work really hard to to create their own luck.

I’m sure the candidate you ended up selecting somehow had different opportunities to acquire more of the knowledge and experience you were looking for. That makes that person better for the job you were offering but it does not make that person better in other way than the other candidates. Not being selected for a job is not failure. Failure is putting 100% of everything you’ve got and failing at it. That is a real failure.

And yes, I believe failure does build self-confidence because at the end of it all – you KNOW that nothing held you back. That you were brave enough to give something your all. You take the experience, grow from it and try again!
.-= Ann Bernard´s last blog ..Can you Really Say That’s Self-Confidence?!? =-.

David May 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

Thanks for your comment and reflections. Ultimately everyone has their own perception on failure – whatever we think we have no idea whether or not that candidate saw themselves as a failure or not. Likewise self confidence; personally I still think that most people don’t gain confidence from what they perceive as a failure.

Double Bass Strings May 27, 2010 at 8:56 am

Hmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I desired to say that it’s nice to realize that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the exact same info elsewhere. This was the very first place that told me the answer. Many thanks.

chris February 15, 2011 at 11:16 am

Failure is a stepping stone to success. It is unfortunate that most people find their success from their failure.

LeeLoo May 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Well, I don’t agree that it’s failure itself that makes us more confident, but how we deal with it. From my own experience I can say that I started feeling more confident once I started to take matters into my own hands more, and take some risks/work harder.
I think a lot of people, like myself, develop the “learned helplessness syndrome” too early in their lives. I actually suffered from it for years, and it was deepened after going through repeated experiences where I felt out of control(like being bullied in school) to the point where I quite literally gave up trying. But somehow, in my own, twisted, learned helpless way, I didn’t even realize what I was doing, taht I had given up on myself.
Beliefs are so incredibly powerful, so deeply rooted that they’re incredibly hard to “bend”.
For instance, being raised by very critical and demanding parents, like I was, we may grow up thinking we’ll never get what we want, we’ll never be enough, we’ll never be accepted by anyone. And the earlier these “programmes” get printed on our brains, the more difficult they are to wash away.
I grew up in a very sad home, although materially sheltered, I was quite isolated and felt ignored/neglected or downright abused by my parents.
My father was a very aggressive, permanently angry, alcoholic who would often threaten to use force to keep things going his way.
I grew up terrified and went on living like that, knowing that if my own parents don’t like me, nobody will, so I had(still have) chronic low self-esteem.
I never felt worthy of anytrhing good coming my way, I grew up hating myself, I became obese from a very young age, started self-injury at 13, in the form of persistent(every day) and excessive(as in not just pimples) skin-picking(am only now starting to cope with it, at 24).
I can honestly say I have never truly liked myself, or felt fully good in my own skin(much less, happy) and in school, whenever someone picked on me, I never said anything back, because I was used to it, that’s how I was raised. It wasn’t until after my 20th birthday, after researching some psychology that I finally started to understand (in part) the root of my severe depression.
I’m still not happy, really, but I’m much less depressed than I used to be, and can actually feel that things can get better, and that I’m not as helpless or worthless as I thought.

LeeLoo May 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Forgot to mention…my confidence started growing once I started setting small challenges for myself and overcoming them. Comparing yourself to others will only make you feel like crap, so don’t do it, because it’s pointless.
One of the best things I did was talk back. I think I was like 20 or 21 when these “friends” were making fun of me, putting me down, and I literally snapped and threw a bunch of insuts in their faces, pointing out some of their own faults. I was totally angry at the time, so not a proud moment, but I think the sheer force with which I “errupted” just shut up their mouths for good, because they never made fun/picken on me again. People are basically animals, and a lot of them will take advantage of you, if you allow them to, so don’t feel bad for having to resort to a bit “tougher” methods of getting some basic respect.
Granted, not everybody has the same issues, of feeling walked on. But the issue is basically just overcoming your fears, and testing yourself.
The more you know what to do, the more your self esteem will improve, the more independent you’ll feel, and your confidence will grow, as a result.
Another thing that actually kind of improved my self-esteem was managing to graduate college, even though I barely made it from one year to the next, with the minimum amount of credits each year(due to the same depression and heplessness I wrote about, I basically only went to college because my family pressured me to. If I could go back, I would’ve chosen to just get a crappy minimum wage job for at least a year, right after high school,before I try to figure out what I wanna do with my life) and I ended up having to prolong my studies for a year because I didn’t pass all my exams in the 3 years I was supposed to graduate. But taking exams for up to 7 times before finally passing gave me a strange sense of confidence, because I realized it’s no biggie, like the article said, I didn’t die. I developed a kind of immunity to failure after those 4 years were over and I finally graduated.

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