Turning Failure into Fuel for Success

Latest research shows that the sting of failure is needed to turn things around.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

Source: Pexels

A new study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise looked at what happens to us after we fail. The researchers found that experiencing setbacks hurts your self-esteem but has no effect on actual performance.

These findings fly in the face of the commonly held view that failure begets more failure. It’s not necessarily the case that failure at time 1 leads to failure at time 2. In fact, it might be the opposite: It could be the thing that you need to propel you forward to later (and lasting) success.

It depends, however, on how you cope with your emotional response to personal setbacks.

Turning failure into fuel

Failing sucks. The lousy feeling you get after you fail is unavoidable. But it’s this experience of negative emotion that drives improved performance the next time around. It relates back to a longstanding view in psychology called cybernetic control theory.

This theory argues that our behavior is regulated by feedback cycles, like a thermostat: With the rising heat of failure, your brain’s internal governor kicks in to cool your emotions in order to help you be better at whatever you’re doing.

Experiencing negative emotions after failing is an important part of the process. But the kicker is that not all angst and anxiety is going to work in your favor. It’s essential that you steer clear of the debilitating negativity and focus on the emotions that help to turn failure into fuel.

Let’s take a look at the research.

Source: Pexels

The experiment and its findings

The researchers gathered 42 participants to take part in a golfing task. They were split into two groups and asked to complete 24 putts. Important to note, the participants weren’t able to see where the ball ended up. This was intentional so that the researchers could manipulate the type of feedback and hone in on the individuals’ perceived failure.

In one condition, participants were given positive feedback on their golfing performance every six putts. In the other condition, they were given negative feedback.

In order to see the effect that perceived failure had on the participants’ self-esteem, the researchers administered a self-report every six putts. It was measured by asking them: “To what degree do you believe you can achieve your goal?”

The researchers were also interested in the effect failure had on the participants’ emotions and cognitive executive function. A feeling scale was administered in order to measure emotion while cognitive function was measured using two separate computer tasks. In one task, participants were asked to identify the color name printed in the same ink color (e.g., RED printed in red ink) or different ink color (e.g., BLUE printed in red ink). The other, a math task, involved adding an integer value to a number under a time constraint.

The results of the study revealed that failure had a negative impact on people’s emotional state and self-esteem. (Remember: Failing sucks.) However, they also found that participants’ performance on subsequent physical and cognitive tasks were not impaired by failure. In fact, participants who faced failure actually responded faster to one of the cognitive tasks without compromising their score. In other words, they were both fast and accurate.  

Overall, the findings lend support to the more optimistic view that failure is a necessary condition for future success.

But much more work needs to be done. Future research will ask questions like: What psychological steps need to be taken after a failure in order to do better the next time? Who are the people that can’t break out of a cycle of failure? Why can’t they? How do they differ from others in terms of their resilience, grit, and perseverance?

Have you failed? Try these four steps.

In the meantime, we know that certain steps can be taken so that you find yourself on the winning side of the failure equation. Remember these.

  • Step 1: Recognize and admit failure. With defense mechanisms, you can sometimes deceive yourself into thinking that failure didn’t actually occur. But the unconscious brain is smarter than your conscious cognition. It knows when you messed up. So there’s no point in hiding it. Be sure to take personal responsibility rather than blame the situation.
  • Step 2: Turn off the thinking. At this point, you don’t want to rationalize the failure. Doing so will prevent you learning from it. So avoid the shoulda-coulda-woulda style thinking and begin to embrace the emotions… which leads to the next step.
  • Step 3: Turn on the feelings. Engage with the emotional experience in an adaptive way, with self-compassion. See your emotions by taking a non-judgmental stance. Label them. Give them names, but don’t see them as inherently bad or good.
  • Step 4: Be ready for action. The purpose of emotions — all our emotions — is to prepare you for action. The problem is, some negative emotions actually promote inaction. To overcome failure, steps need to be taken. Things need to get done. If you find your negative affect is characterized by low energy (fatigued, tired, depressed), turn them into sources of high energy negative affect instead (angry, defiant, incensed).

Feeling the sting of failure? We’ll get you over the hump with a little help from science.


Lebeau, J.C., Gatten, H., Perry, I., Wang, Y., Sung, S., & Tenenbaum, G., (2018). Is failing the key to success? A randomized experiment investigating goal attainment effects on cognitions, emotions, and subsequent performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 38, 1-9.