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How to deal with failure

However much we dislike it, failure is an inevitable companion on our journey through learning, and indeed, through life itself. We all fail, all the time. A common image that is mentioned when talking about failure is a baby learning to walk. What baby have you ever known that successfully walked the first time it tried?


I am writing this two days after the England football team lost to Italy in the 2020 European Football Championship. They lost on penalties which is definitely the worst way to lose. Not only this, but three of England’s strikers missed their penalties! This is a very painful, very public form of failure. Most of us do not experience such public failure. We might fail an exam, or fail to get the job that we wanted, but while these failures are painful, they are private. Unlike the strikers in the football team, we don’t have millions of people watching our shortcomings!


Failure in language learning Failure in language learning includes:

· failing an exam or test

· failing to get a job (because our speaking was poor?)

· failing to get into the university of our choice (because our English isn’t good enough?)

· failing to reach a level in a defined time frame

· failing to make progress in general

· failing to use new language

· failing to convey the right message

· failing to understand what someone says

· failing to be accurate or fluent

Some of these forms of failure are outside our control. We can prepare for a job interview, but we do not have the power to decide that we are the best candidate! Some of these things are connected with other aspect of language learning. For example, failing to make progress is connected to having a good study plan with realistic goals. Some of these things are just part of the language learning process.


Don’t give up! Let’s think about the baby learning to walk again. No baby walks the first time they try. They fall over. They bump their heads. They cry. But the one thing a baby never, ever does is to give up. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if a baby thought to itself:


Well, I just can’t seem to learn how to walk. I keep falling over. You know what? I can crawl pretty fast now, so maybe I’ll just stick to hands and

knees and give up on learning how to walk!

Think how life would be if babies gave up on learning to walk. The world would be full of adults who crawled like babies! We could say that if we don't allow ourselves to fail repeatedly when we are learning to do something, we will ultimately never get to the place we want to be. So, why do adults give up so easily? Where does all that perseverance that babies have go to?


My guess is that as we move through education, we are taught that failing is ‘bad’. When we get answers wrong in school our teacher may be angry. When we fail our driving test our parents may tell us we need to pay for the next set of lessons ourselves! We may meet people with limited patience to help us learn what we need. (Go back to the baby again. What would it be like for that baby if someone angrily told it how stupid it was every time it fell over?). People with limited patience can trigger feelings of anxiety and make us feel like a failure.


How to deal with the pain of failure

We need strategies to support us when we fail. Here are five suggestions:

1. Accept that failing is a part of learning and life. Yes, it is painful, but each time you fail is like the baby falling down. It’s just part of the journey on the way to reaching your goal.

2. Don’t hide from the pain – embrace and accept it. Be as kind to yourself as you can be – savage inner criticism is not going to help you recover from the failure.

3. When the pain is calmer, assess what went wrong, and why. This is very important as it gives you power over the situation. Be honest. Don’t try to blame other people, just be as objective as you can.

4. Choose at least one step to take to move you out of the current situation and take it as soon as possible.

4. Look for help from external sources. Whether that’s a teacher, a coach, a friend or an online group, get support. This means that next time you fail, you will have a safety net to catch you. The England football team have supported each other beautifully since the final. There has been no blaming and shaming. Instead, the team and coach have accepted group responsibility - we win together, we lose together. We all need this from time to time!

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