Do You Think of Yourself as a Failure?

I know someone I’ll call Theresa who to me is a real success – career and otherwise. She lives her life based on her own thoughtful and caring values. During her career, she’s worked on issues she cares deeply about and always gives of herself as fully as possible, especially when it comes to helping others. No, she doesn’t have a billion dollars in the bank the way say Bernie Madoff does…er…did. And she isn’t the CEO of a huge multinational company the way Dick Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers is…er…was. But she has something much more valuable, at least in my book.

Theresa has a very different picture of herself. Because of all the things she hasn’t accomplished in her career that she feels she could have, because of all the times she stopped when maybe she “should” have gone on, because of all the talents she has that she feels she hasn’t fully utilized, she thinks of herself at least on some level as a failure.

To me, life is a series of choices. If we take one path, such as when I dropped out of law school (something some might see as failure), yes…we close off certain doors; but we also find new opportunities that would not have been there otherwise. I never once regretted dropping out of law school, nor do I think about all that I could have done if I had just seen it through. Instead, I think about all I learned from that very intensive year of study. I learned about the foundations of the law. I learned how to structure a basic contract. And I even learned the ways justice can be both pushed forward and diverted. Most of all, I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer! 😉

Some people look at their careers and see what’s missing, rather than all the things they have. We make choices. Those choices may include NOT aiming to be president of a company and instead focusing our attentions on things we love rather than traditional career moves. And choices like that do close off certain doors. But they can also open up our lives and enrich us in ways that just don’t show on a resume.

At any point in our lives, I think it’s a great thing to stop and look at where we are and see if there are things we still want to accomplish. And it’s good to look at our past to see what we can learn from the things we’ve done. But one thing that can stop us from getting anywhere is continually looking back with regret and holding on to counter-productive feelings like those of being a failure.  The real secret to success is being able to transcend all that went before and use each stumble to grow stronger.

Are You Letting Your Failures Have All the Power?

Every regret, every screw-up we still feel guilty about, every iota of feeling that makes us think we’re not good enough or strong enough or smart enough because of how we judge ourselves in the past (oh how hard we can be on ourselves), saps our energy NOW. But…every one of these things we choose to finally let go (or at least step over), gives us more available energy for taking actions toward building an exciting future. Corny as it may sound, we really do only have now and tomorrow. Why whip ourselves over things we did wrong (or think we did wrong) or simply missed making happen for ourselves back then?

Rather than being stuck in a quagmire of regrets, think about what you can do for yourself right now or within the next few weeks – even if it’s only a tiny step – that gets you moving toward something you’d truly feel good about. Is there something you’ve been longing to do that you keep talking yourself out of or just putting off? Come up with a baby step now – even if it’s just planning to speak with someone about your idea – and then build from there. Every step you take makes it more real…and gets you further away from that negative picture of yourself.

Think About Your Successes

It’s also important to spend some time (daily at first if necessary) reminding yourself of all your successes, large and small.  There are plenty if you really stop to think about it. And yes…things like simply pitching in on a team effort or making someone feel better when they’re down count!  If we focus mostly on our failures, the good stuff fades into the distance and we begin to give too much weight to the other stuff that keeps us down; the picture we hold of ourselves gets warped – just like the way Theresa saw herself.

So keep building that list of things you’ve done right. And don’t forget…as you take on new challenges of any size in the present, each new success helps you paint a much more positive (and relevant) picture to hold on to. We all have stuff we’re not proud of, but why spend our precious days focusing on that when you can work toward things you’ll really can feel good about? As an added benefit, you can also use your bag of successes as a quick pick-me-up to help change your mood while moving forward! 🙂

And speaking of failures…when I was about to get my MBA, I interviewed with a major New York City bank. The SVP asked me if I had ever failed. I said “no”. (Oh…I’d screwed up plenty by then, but didn’t think I should say that.) Well, he looked me in the eyes and basically told me “That’s too bad. You learn a lot from failing.  (If you do get that interview question, think of a not-too-horrific time when you screwed up, and then make sure you add what you learned from the experience, giving a success story showing how well you’ve applied the lesson. Turning failure into success is a powerful concept. )

All this can take time, of course. Have faith in yourself. Sometimes we learn right away, and sometimes it takes many many years to apply the lessons. But as they say…s’all good. Wastes precious energy and good shoe leather to kick yourself. Not to mention those additional self-inflicted bruises. 🙂

So what about it? Do you think of yourself as a failure? Have you stopped yourself from moving forward because of how you view your past? How do you handle screw-ups and failures?

Your thoughts and stories very welcome!

Ronnie Ann

Related posts:

If You Never Fail, You Never Risked Enough

How a Screw-up Can Be More Valuable Than a Raise

Baby Stepping to a Career You Love


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. HI Ronnie
    Loved this post.

    There are a lot of resonances with some of the things I put in the Life Dreaming workbook (free download on my blog).

    Success – a word that has been defined so many ways … and in the process it’s hurt people … made them feel like failures.

    In recent years success here in Ireland seemed to be measured by externals – your job, house, cars, holidays, meals out ….

    I felt like a salmon swimming the wrong way!

    I didn’t own a home, have a car or any of the material trappings that seemed to be required to define success.

    What I did have was a great life … my health, great friends and family, great blogging friends (you being at the top of the list my friend), value driven businesses, a life in a wonderful rural Irish town.

    In my eyes I was a great success … because I had decided how I’d define the word … not anyone else.

    There’s great power in defining what it is you value … what’s important in your life … and then live your life in a way that is congruent.

    Globally we are finding that some of the old definitions of success have crumbled.

    So … everyones power now lies in defining for themselves what success means … having the courage to explore and choose what is important for their lives.

    That is so exciting.

    And for your friend Ronnie?

    A lot of how she feels is self talk that doesn’t support and nurture her … would she say those things to a dear friend? Don’t think so.

    And she’s very lucky to have a friend like you to provide her with a positive sense of her life.

    Have a wonderful Easter or Passover or just a break … all depends on your spiritual practice.



  2. Oh Liz! What a wonderful comment. Worthy of a post all on its own…although for anyone who reads your blog, this is exactly what they find in words and in deeds.

    You make a really good point about Life Dreaming (the book and the activity). So often we dream about concrete things like great jobs, beautiful houses, perfect mates, etc. but then when we get there, we still feel vaguely dissatisfied. Obviously, success is more than just things. And you show that every day by living your values and finding interesting new projects and adventures no matter what else isn’t quite as one might wish at the moment. And I have seen the world open up to you because of it – but if it didn’t, that wouldn’t stop you anyway!

    I wish you a happy holiday, my dear cyber-friend and much success on this day – which you and I both know may simply be ample lolling time, some time with friends or with the kids in the Sunny Funny Garden, and a good episode of Dr. Who. 😉

    Peace out and in,
    Ronnie Ann

  3. What lovely things you write dear friend.

    Don’t talk to me about Dr Who … there’s a 1 hour episode on Saturday and I’m selecting art for a group exhibition … bummer.

    I did my own Life Dreaming while I was up the mountain this week … and am now doing a fab plan for how I want my cottage to be beautiful.

    Starting with what I don’t like … and then turning it into positive action ideas.

    Then I’ll barter, build or buy (over time) what is needed.

    And many congratulations on the real success of this site.

    You provide insight and inspiration to thousands and thousands of people … that’s really making a difference.

    One day you’ll hear a knock on your door … and it will be Marc & I coming to visit and take you wherever you want … and just relaxing and having a fab chat.

    I think when Marc & I get the whole Life Dreaming site and course of the ground … we will be visiting you sooner rather than later.

    Looking forward to continually reading your great posts Ronnie.

    xx Liz

  4. Such a beautiful dream! I have tears in my eyes. How I would LOVE to see you both sooner rather than later. Hope you can stand an old sofa bed and curious cat. 🙂

    Glad you got that positive action going for your cottage. Now you’re inspiring me to get that Life Dreaming book out and do some playful work. And sorry about Dr. Who. Ouch. Starting to worry about where your priorities are! 😉

    Hope to see you soon Liz!

    Ronnie Ann

  5. Hey Ronnie
    If I hadn’t promised to be the art judge … I would cancel everything else to see Dr Who. I went through the tv guide to see if there was a repeat … nada.

    No point in asking anyone to tape it as I don’t have a vid machine.

    No probs about where Marc and I would stay … we’d find a cool apartment in the city … and visit you heaps … and take you for a few cocktails (or your soft drink of choice).

    The Life Dreaming workbook is fun … just open a page and see what happens.

    xx Liz

  6. Thank you for clarifying that, Liz. I feel MUCH better about your priorities. 🙂

    Ronnie Ann

  7. i used to think of myself as somewhat of a failure ever since i started working last august. i quit my first job as an editor, and am now working as another sort of editor. i’m quitting this one too because i found my dream job, working in a bookshop. the first i quit my job i did feel as if i failed at it, but this time i don’t because i believe i’ll love my new job at the bookshop.

    quitting doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you realise what you’re doing is not your priority any longer and you are seeking something else you have passion for. and yes, quitting something, especially when you don’t enjoy it, does open other opportunities you might close yourself to because of this thing you tied yourself to as a job.

  8. Well said, Sulz! Quitting can indeed be a good choice at times rather than a failing of some sort.

    I’m so excited for you about your new job and wish you all the best. Fingers, legs, and eyes crossed.

    Good luck!

    Ronnie Ann

  9. I just found out I’m failing my math course. Which I need to be a doctor. Ever since I’ve failed my bio class, I’ve been questioning my career choice. In this day and age I can’t make mistakes. But is failing some sort of sign that is stopping me? I’m in college and needed a pick me up and I read this and it made me feel a little better. I know you may not read this but I am completely lost right now.

    • Hi Susy,

      Talk to an academic advisor pronto. They can help you. Yes, doing poorly in math and science can hurt with a med school application — but there are also likely other programs and resources which could help you. In fact, some undergraduate students decide to postpone the medical school application process until AFTER they are done with college and they can take all pre-med classes at one time.

      Try to make one friend on campus in a faculty or staff position EVERY single semester. This can help you move forward.

      All the Best,

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