How your stories of failure create better business success

Jodie Cook talks to behavioral scientist David Cook about the benefits of reframing your business lemons into entrepreneurial lemonade.

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No one really wants to fail. Admitting that you called it wrong, disclosing that you couldn’t make it work and announcing layoffs and closures isn’t how anyone planned their business journey. And yet failure happens every day, and it happens to almost every entrepreneur. But what if, instead of failure meaning defeat and hopelessness, it could mean better business success?

David Robson is an award-winning science writer specialising in the extremes of the human brain, body and behaviour, and he understands how failure can be channelled into success. The clue is in how you document and tell your story, and therefore how you frame the role failure plays in your life. 

“Spinning our memories into a well-told life narrative and viewing our future as an extension of this story, can help us achieve our aspirations for self-improvement,” he explains. Robson has written about such topics as a features editor for New Scientist and senior journalist for BBC Future. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Men’s Health and the Atlantic, and in 2022 he won Mental Health Story of the Year at the MJA Annual Awards. David’s second book The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, was published last year.

According to Robson, there are multiple benefits to crafting your life story and trying to rewrite our failures, and here are the top five.

1. Better mental health in general

“When you get a hold of your life narrative and see your failures as positive turning points, where you can recognise what you have learnt from the experience, it’s linked to a reduced risk of depression,” says Robson, who is a fan of reflection and journaling as a way of doing this.

Failure doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and it won’t be if you don’t see it that way. Every project that ends gives space for a new one to begin, the same with relationships, deals or contracts. Telling the story of what went wrong can bring humour, learning and ideas for the way forward that help someone’s brain switch to a more helpful channel. 

Although there’s a caveat here, which is “it’s not possible to turn every trauma into positive stories,” and this in fact can, “create pressure that isn’t always healthy,” there’s no denying that “when we look at our performance in the workplace, taking stock of where we have failed, despite the pain, there might be something we can take forward.” Robson says this is a “really psychologically healthy reaction and the research supports that this is good for your mental health.”

2. Greater self-esteem and sense of self-worth

“Just writing about important events in your life can bolster your self-esteem,” explains Robson, which he says comes from various studies with over 1000 participants. The studies found that this practice “makes you feel better about yourself and your capabilities.” Robson suggests this might be because, “it seems to give people a sense of self-efficacy, that they realise that they have a rich story to tell, which makes them feel better about themselves.”

If you are feeling down about something, especially work-related, look at your life history and try to think of some of your successes. This could also help you to put your failures into perspective. Today’s angry client email might be better handled once you remember how you’ve successfully navigated client relationships before. Tomorrow’s important meeting might feel less daunting in the context of all the pitches you’ve smashed.

In a sea of hundreds of positive reviews, it’s easy to focus on the single negative one. Human nature means we look out for danger and potential threats, so we gravitate towards the one star and obsess over it. But thinking and writing about the event as a whole can stop us from zooming in on the small, inconsequential details that cost our confidence.

3. Positive impacts on physical health

One of many studies that Robson read, which proved this outcome, looked at expressive writing in students. The trial found that after they wrote about an important moment in their life and talked about the emotions they had during the experience, they were less likely to visit the doctor. The link is closure and rumination.

“Once you go into this process of writing expressively you begin to craft a narrative,” which Robson said is especially powerful for entrepreneurs writing about their failures. “You become more objective and distanced from the event itself and you start to find closure. Preferably by finding the lessons but also by finding the greater context of how they failure fits into your overall trajectory.” 

Writing about an event in this way gives you psychological closure and stops you ruminating, which is linked with stress. “The more we turn things over in our head without finding closure, the more stressed we feel and the worse this is for our physical health.” When you do this expressive writing, you find better closure, which means better physical health. The mental and the physical are intertwined.

4. Enhanced persistence and self-discipline

Writing and talking about your stories of failure can mean that you feel less defeated and more determined to reach your goals. “The research shows that when we become more sophisticated in thinking about our life’s story, by focusing on turning points where we faced disappointment and then managed to progress in spite of it, it reinforces a belief that you can and will overcome failures in the future,” said Robson. 

Remember how you overcame failures in the past to feel bulletproof for whatever is around the corner. “If you have just experienced a failure,” said Robson, “you might be tempted to give up, but looking back over your life’s history and finding other points where you suffered similar setbacks but managed to come back even stronger is a really good way to get back on your feet and pursue your dreams.”

The research Robson gleaned these trends from looked at students doing writing exercises about their past failures, and demonstrated this had a positive effect on their grades over the next few months, through that sense of self-empowerment. Persistence is always required for entrepreneurship, so reminders of how capable you are of being persistent will likely serve you well.

5. Better able to work through hard times

Finally, this research tells us how we can reframe our thinking while we’re in the middle of a really difficult challenge, when we might feel like we are on the cusp of failure. Related to Robson’s new book, the Expectation Effect, “we can often see our feelings of anxiety and frustration as being a sign of imminent failure which can cause us to catastrophize what’s going to happen, so we start to think of worse case scenarios and see the emotions themselves as being dangerous.” 

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you think your frustration and anxiety will make your situation worse and you fear the stress you’re feeling, it only becomes true, and it makes failure more likely.” This is not a recipe for the stamina that working through challenges requires. 

But there are other, far better ways of looking at this. Instead of catastrophizing, “you can recognise that the anxiety is a signal that this is really important for you,” similarly, when you’re feeling stressed, “see this as an energising sign that your body is getting ready to deal with the challenge ahead.” Reframe the way you interpret the emotions of your difficulties. “When you do this,” said Robson, “you become more creative, your problem-solving skills improve and you’re better able to find a solution to the difficulties you’re facing. It helps to mute some of the damaging effects that can come from long term stress and is a useful skill for anyone to learn.”

Final thought

Rather than going through your day reacting to whatever happens, see yourself as the main character in the movie of your life. See barriers and obstacles as fun things that you will overcome and be able to tell in stories. When something important happens, success or failure alike, write about it, talk about it, discern the meaning then put it to one side and keep going. Enhanced mental and physical health are just two of the benefits, along with self-esteem, self-worth, self-discipline and feeling like you can take on the world.

Mid shot of Jodie Cook freelance journalist.
Jodie Cook - entrepreneur and writer

Jodie Cook is founder of Coachvox AI, enabling thought leaders to create an AI coach version of themselves, to generate leads and engage their audience. Jodie started her first business at 22, straight after completing a business management degree and one-year graduate scheme. While building her social media agency over a ten year period, she started writing for Forbes on the topic of entrepreneurs and was included on the Forbes 30 under 30 list of 2017. In 2021 Jodie sold the agency for seven figures and wrote her book, Ten Year Career, sharing lessons from the entrepreneurial journey.

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