How do YOU interpret failure?

How do you feel about failure?
I’m willing to bet that you’re not crazy about it.  (I know I’m not!)
But at some point, no matter how hard we try, we’re going to fail at something.
Book ReportSo, I think it’s important to consider how to respond to failure when it does happen, and how to improve our resilience so we’re better able to bounce back from upsetting events.
There are a number of great way to improve resilience, but one of the methods a number of my students have found to be helpful is reframing them as “ system failures”, rather than personal failures.

Personal failure vs. System failure

There’s an enormous difference between viewing failure as the result of a flaw in the system or strategy you’re using, as opposed to a flaw in YOU.
It’s the difference between “I failed” and “My system failed”.
When you interpret failures as personal flaws — like being “bad at math”, “unmotivated”, “disorganized”, or “a bad test taker”,  you’re stuck.  There’s not a lot you can do to change who you are, so the chances of getting a better result next time are slim.  You might as well just give up.
If, on the other hand, you think of failures as system flaws, all of a sudden it’s much less personal.  It’s not about YOU anymore, it’s about the system you were using to get those results.  And systems are much easier to change.
The benefits of systems thinking
  • It makes change seem like a real possibility.  If your system failed, it’s easy to change it!  Just get rid of it, and create a new one 🙂

  • It leads to more creative solutions.  System failures are less personal.  Consequently, it’s much easier to evaluate them rationally, consider their pros & cons, and think creatively about options for how to change & improve them.

  • There’s less of a temptation to avoid the problem.  Blaming yourself for failures feels awful, so it becomes very tempting to avoid the issue entirely and distract yourself with something more pleasant.  Of course, this does nothing to solve the underlying problem!  If you’re putting the blame on your system, instead, it’s much less upsetting and becomes a lot easier to address the problem rather than ignoring it.

  • Light bulb and gears. Perpetuum mobile idea concept.There’s less of a need to get defensive.  When people feel like they are being personallyattacked, their instinct is go to on the defensive…at which point they are much more focused on justifying why they did what they did…and much less open to talking about what they could do differently next time.  People are much less invested in protecting their systems, so it’s a lot easier to have an open discussion about system failures than it is about personal failures.
Character is far less ‘fixed’ than we think!
Personality researchers used to have this idea that personalities were “fixed” aspects of a person’s character that didn’t really change.  But the reality is that if you put people in different situations, their behavior — and their results — will be dramatically different!
For example, imagine a student studying for his science test alone in his bedroom at 11 PM on the night before the exam, with the phone, computer, and TV on.
And compare that to the same student studying for the same test downstairs at the kitchen table — or at a campus library — for half an hour a day, over the course of several days before the exam, with no electronic distractions.
If the student in the first scenario failed his exam, would it make sense to conclude that he was “lazy”, “unmotivated”, or “bad at science”?  Of course not!  But it would certainly be valid to conclude that the system he was using to prepare for his science test had some serious flaws!
Is this just avoiding responsibility?
If you think of your mistakes as system failures, rather than personal failures, does that mean you’re just avoiding responsibility for your mistakes?
Avoiding responsibility would mean blaming the failure on someone else, by complaining that “I have a bad teacher” or “That professor’s exams are too hard.”
If you blame failures on other people, then you’re stuck.  You can’t MAKE other people change, so then you’re left with no power or ability to improve the situation. 
Blaming failure on the system you used to approach the situation is different, because YOU are the one who chose to use that system.  And just like any other tool you choose to use, YOU get to decide whether to continue using it as is, make some modifications & improvements to it, or toss it out and create a new one from scratch.
The point is, it’s up to you!  Far from avoiding responsibility, this approach encourages you to take responsibility for creating a system that will get you the results you want!

Does this approach interest you?

If you like the idea of identifying systems that will help you reach your goals more effectively, you may be interested in the new group coaching class I will be offering in mid-February, on time management, organization & study skills for high school students.  The focus of this class will be working with students to evaluate & improve the systems they’re using to manage their time, keep track of assignments, study for exams, plan ahead for long-term projects, stay focused & avoid distractions…and more!  If you are a teen — or the parent of a teen — who would enjoy learning these skills & strategies in a collaborative, small-group environment, please email me at for more information, or click here for the course flyer.
Your turn!
How do you typically respond to your failures, mistakes, and shortcomings?  What about the mistakes & failures of your teens?
Do you see them as personal failures?  Or system failures?
For students:
If you saw your mistakes as a result of a system failures, rather than inherent personal flaws, what would that be like for you?  How would it affect your motivation and desire to improve? 

For parents:
If you interpreted more of your teen’s mistakes as resulting from system failures, rather than character flaws, what would that be like for you?

How could you discuss mistakes & failures with your teen in a way that avoids placing blame, and encourages them to think creatively about options for to improve their systems & approaches so they function more easily & effectively?
I hope you enjoyed this article!
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By |February 6th, 2015|Categories: Mindset|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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