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5 Ways to Think About Failure In Midlife

Bouncing back is different than when you were younger


In her August 2015 Psychology Today article on failure, science writer Carlin Flora noted that entrepreneurs are often told in business books that failure is a necessary step on the road to success. In fact, according to some, failure seems to almost guarantee eventual success.

But let’s be honest: Failure at 25 is different than failure at 55. So if you run headlong into a business or career failure in midlife, are you too old to try again? Is it too late for you to achieve a goal you’ve long wanted to achieve?

It depends — on you and on what you want to achieve, if you define failure as trying something and not managing to accomplish it.

Taking that into account, consider these five ways to think about failure:

If you run headlong into a business or career failure in midlife, are you too old to try again?

1. Failure is something that happens, not something a person becomes. In other words, if you fail at something, you do not become a failure.

Psychologist Erik Erikson, known for his work defining life’s developmental stages, labeled the final stage “Integrity vs. Despair” and essentially pegged despair to “goals never reached.” Most people likely fall somewhere in between feeling truly satisfied that they’d reached all of their life goals and feeling despair over not having reached any of them. And that’s a good way to look at failure. To put it another way: “You win some, and you lose some.”

2. If your significant other or child took a chance at starting a business, only to have it fail, would you look at them and think “failure” or admire them for having taken a risk? Probably the latter. People tend to be a lot harder on themselves than they are on others. Failure is usually not as bad as you think it is.

3. Those business books have it right when they suggest that failure can be a valuable experience. You can learn a lot from failing at something — a lot about yourself as a person and a lot about what you were trying to do.

Maybe you can try again, using what you’ve learned, to succeed the second time around. Maybe you’ll decide that trying again isn’t in the cards (for example, if you failed at trying to finance an independent film and lost other people’s money). Either way, you’ve learned a lot.

Take failure for what it is: life experience.

You’re in the game, and at times we all must suffer, what The Wide World of Sports used to call “the agony of defeat.” Be proud of the fact that you tried, took a chance, risked it and put it all out there. Cliché or not, it really isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you played the game.

4. Life is just too short to dwell on past failures, even recent ones. Enjoy what you do have: Your relationships, your health, a good book, a nice long walk, etc. This doesn’t mean you should ignore how you feel after a failure or pretend that you didn’t fail.

Welcome the experience as something that makes you who you are. Let yourself feel bad for a little while if what you failed at was something that really mattered to you, but then assign the event to the imaginary drawer in your file cabinet of experience and look ahead.

5. Since failure later in life is harder to recover from than when you’re young, it’s more important to think about it in a way that’ll let you take the necessary steps to push forward. You may never climb back to the heights you were at before, but that doesn’t mean you should give up entirely. Don’t focus on what you can’t do or couldn’t do; focus on what you can do.

Make appropriate adjustments and cut back on expenses if the failure has pinched your finances. Make a plan, and every day do at least one thing that feels like you’re making progress.

In short, figure out what works for you to be resilient. There are plenty of constructive actions that might help — such as meditation, attending a religious institution, getting together with friends to talk it out, seeing a therapist or writing about it.

You may even find that simply looking for a way to change how you think about failure changes how you think about it.

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