Optimising failure

Failure is inescapable. When delving into the uncertain world of postgraduate study, it hits all of us in different ways. But has anyone figured out how to deal with it? Pippa tries to find any hidden gems of how best to deal with failure.

Where to even begin? Failed experiments. Missing deadlines. Job rejections. Relationships dissolving. These and countless other eventualities have left me and countless others feeling frustrated, bewildered and disappointed. This is a natural reaction when we have put our time and energy into something that hasn’t worked. It’s even healthy to embrace these initial reactions to these unwanted outcomes of life.

However, it is what happens after these initial feelings that tells us if we have found our way of failing well. Coping when the unexpected and unwanted happens crosses everyone’s mind. There have been and still are, projects looking into how to “fail well”. So, I wanted to see what is out there and hopefully shed some light on how to fail successfully.

Why does failure feel like a week-long slap in the face?

If something didn’t work perfectly, it failed. Seems logical to me. When someone asks me how an experiment has gone, if I can’t say “It was beautiful, showed me exactly what I expected” I tend to tell myself that I’m a failure. But what is beneath this unhelpful internal dialogue?

After a little research into these thoughts, the term perfectionism popped up. And as post-graduates, with the stakes feeling high and disappointment at every corner,  it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and focus only on the current failures.

After a run of bad luck, things do occasionally work. Do I celebrate? No. Instead, I often think, “oh, that was just luck”. These and other thoughts are incorporated under the umbrella of imposter syndrome. I have related to this concept in the past, often not really thinking I can hack this and it’s just a fluke that I have made it this far. But perfectionism and imposter syndrome seem to contradict each other. If things go wrong, I’m at fault and failure, if things go right it’s nothing to do with me and is just down to chance.  Some food for thought.

What can be done to improve our response to failure?

There are many phrases on dealing with failure such as “brush yourself off”, “when life gives you lemons…”, “you’ll bounce back”. But this is all easier said than done. My go-to method is sulking and indulging myself with self-pity for at least two days. Not the most effective method. However, recently I have found listening to loud music can help, taking my mind off the failure and drowning out the self-criticism for a bit. This seems to let me think about the situation more clearly. Finding a way to re-group after a “failure” strikes is important but the exact method will be different for everyone. It could be running, talking to people, relaxing with a book, golf etc…

All the best people fail

While searching the internet, it surprised me how many famously successful people have experienced failure. These included authors, Olympians, scientists and actors. My favourite quote I came across was by Thomas Edison who said: “I have not failed; I have found 10,000 ways it won’t work”.

Although at first failure can feel disheartening, we’ve gotten this far which means we can do this. Postgraduate study is all about finding something new and, as Einstein said, “If you’ve never failed, you’ve never tried anything new”. So to get where we are going, we are going to have to fail quite a few more times.

But we are well practised. We have already tried and tested ways to deal with various setbacks and all we need to do is harness those methods of, for me, listening to my music, composing myself and realising that each experiment is just a small stepping stone to the big picture and if it takes a few (thousand) times to figure out how to get it to work that is fine.

If you have found any methods to deal with failure, heard other great quotes or enjoyed this blog then please comment below.


Have you found any methods to deal with failure or heard other great quotes about failing? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Pippa Richardson is in the third year of her PhD in neuroscience here at the University of Warwick looking in detail at proteins involved in learning and memory. She is also a counselling ambassador for the University. You can find her on twitter @pipparichardso2.


Cover image: mistake-spill-slip-up-accident-876597 / stevepb / CC0 1.0

Image 1: success-planning-strategy-draw-pen-620300 / 742680 / CC0 1.0

Image 2: golf-practice-failure-shot-swing-1802020 / naobim / CC0 1.0

Image 3: smilies-bank-sit-rest-friends-1644210 / alexas_fotos / CC0 1.0

One thought on “Optimising failure

  1. Thank you for writing this! I have recently graduated with the highest grade from an institution where I spent two amazing years, worked as a teaching assistant twice, got chosen as a student representative for an event, got praised by my supervisor and other teachers…but guess what I’m focusing on now: not knowing what to do, being a failure for not having found the perfect job, being lazy (which, by the way, is not even true, but my brain had to find something to blame me for). But it’s true that having failed at small and big things in the past is the reason why today I can cope with these invasive thoughts so much better than 3/4 years ago…I have developed my own method, which might seems odd to someone but works for me. I keep old movies and TV shows from my childhood in the background while I work on my computer (for instance now, while I look for jobs and a new house). Having those sounds in the background brings me back to feelings of safety and comfort from when I was little, and they calm me down, reminding me that intense stress is temporary and will feel okay soon. It is also important to treat yourself with kindness: that, I have to repeat myself because I also suffer from imposter syndrome and tend to criticize myself constantly, and diminish my efforts. I also collect small things I have stumbled upon throughout the years (cards, invitations, letters, paper wrappers of chocolate I used to eat with a friend) to remind myself how much I have achieved in my personal and academic life 🙂

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