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How Do You Explain Your Failures? It Matters More Than You Think

After her lack luster performance in the free skate four years ago in Vancouver, Carolina Kostner left the free ice with her head clutched between her arms. “I thought I would stop skating,” she said. “I thought that was my end.”

But it wasn’t. Despite her bitter disappointment at the time, she chose to press on. “The hard times make you understand what you really want,” she later said. and I’m really glad that I continued and am honored to have experienced everything that I have in the past years.”

As a young cartoonist, Walt Disney faced countless rejections from newspaper editors. He “lacked natural talent” they said. One day a minister from a local church took pity on the young cartoonist and hired him to do some cartoons in a small mouse infested shed behind the church. After seeing a small mouse, he became inspired to draw it. And so, Mickey Mouse was born.

After enduring a rough and often abusive childhood in rural Mississippi, Oprah Winfrey was fired from one of her first jobs as a TV reporter, being told she was “unfit for television.”

Kostner didn’t earn her bronze medal in Sochi by giving into her self-doubts, or throwing in the towel when the going got tough. Winfrey did not become one of the most influential women in the world by allowing others to define her. Nor did Disney become a household name by buying into the beliefs of those who didn’t believe in him. Their journeys offer inspiring lessons on how to handle failure. In short – don’t let it define you.

Of course, you may feel like you have little in common with Kostner, Winfrey or Disney. But that isn’t true. You do. They were not born with a super human resilience that shielded them from disappointment, self-doubt or misgivings. They each had to wage their own inner battles with fear of failure as they worked hard to overcome the external obstacles that lined their path to success. What distinguishes these people is that they did not become a victim to their failures. When they fell down, they got back up. And when people told them it couldn’t be done, they refused to buy into their lack of belief.

If you study history, you will find that all stories of great success are also stories of great triumph over adversity. But often we overlook the setbacks and only see the end success. We think the person got lucky: “He or she must have been at the right place at the right time.” Or maybe they were just really smart. Or talented. Or well connected. But that’s all bunk. While it may have been a little bit of each, what ultimately led to their success was their refusal to allow their setbacks and failures to define them.

Marty Seligman, a leading psychologist, found through his research that it is how we explain our failures that ultimately determines our future success. That is, it is not the size of your failures, nor how many you’ve had, but how you interpret them and assign their meaning in your life. Tell yourself that your failures are due to a permanent inadequacy on your part, to something that cannot be changed or fixed, and you will fall into a mood of resignation, of resentment or both. Tell yourself that they provided you with valuable opportunities to learn about what doesn’t work and what not to do, and you can leverage them to propel you forward in ways that success never can.

As Thomas Edison once said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”

There are things that you and only you can do, things that will never be done, if you do not do them because you’ve become discouraged by the results of past attempts. Any worthwhile accomplishment is going to call on you to trust in yourself more fully, to risk making mistakes and forgive yourself when you do, to press on when the going gets tough, and to refuse to allow your setbacks to define you.

How you choose to explain your failures will either move you forward in life or hold you back. Every failure can be turned into a stepping stone to success, but only if you decide to make it one. Every mistake is a lesson in what not to do, but only if you look for it. And every setback is an opportunity to grow wiser and stronger, but only if you refuse to succumb to self-pity.

Your failures may shape you, but they should never keep you from moving forward in work.