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Why falling short of targets is a necessary step towards success

Winston Churchill observed that "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm". But still failure is feared: failure at work, at relationships, in meeting the expectations of friends, family and society. 

"People fear failure for a number of reasons," says psychologist Deborah Newburn. "This may be due to having grown up in a critical environment where making a mistake was punished or ridiculed.

"When someone perceives they have failed, the threat system in their brain is switched on and contributes to ongoing fear about negative consequences that may occur. This can lead people to feel very anxious, which they attribute to the 'failure' rather than to how they're responding." 

Yet responding to that feeling of failure with perseverance is the key to success. Economics editor and columnist for the Financial Times, Tim Harford, is an advocate of making "good mistakes". 

In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Harford outlines the key ways that failure can be a catalyst for adapting and thriving. 

"Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches, on the grounds that failure is common," Harford advises. 


David Hughes runs Bendigo's Festival of Failure, which is pitched at "anyone who has ever dreamed big". He believes flexibility, adaptability and the willingness to embrace the great unknown are key to reframing failure as humbling and necessary.  

"The accepted definition of failure is really a lack of success, but what we're trying to promote is that failure is a great teacher. If we learn from it, we can go on to greater success." Here are some ways to reframe failure.

Expect it

Psychologist Michelle McCormack says you need to have realistic expectations. "Nobody is perfect and we have to allow room for failure in our lives. It is likely you are magnifying your mistakes and minimising all the things you have done really well." 

Be prepared to adapt

Flexibility and a plan B, C and D are musts for overcoming setbacks. "Plans are good but remember [military strategist] Helmuth von Moltke's famous dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy," Harford says. "Plans that seduce us into thinking failure is impossible are dangerous."

Learn from it

Failure is an opportunity to learn and evolve. "You may have messed up or not be where you hoped to be, but focus on what you can control to go forward," says McCormack. "For example, you may not have got the job you wanted, but you can focus on improving your CV, building interview skills or gaining further accreditation to enhance your chances of getting the next one."


"If you keep going, you'll get there," Hughes says.