Failure is How You Feel About Your Results


I simplify complex or mysterious terms to make them easy to understand and act on. The professional and personal development fields seem to prefer click-bait titles—what sells over what works. Talk about failure and success is filled with clichés (“It’s the journey, not the destination,” “everything happens for a reason”) and grandstanding (“fail early and often,” “I failed many times before succeeding”) that I haven’t found helpful for someone facing a challenge and fearing failing. Successful people tend to say they failed on the way to success and now welcome failure, or even look forward to it, but what they mean by “failure” isn’t what beginners think of it.

Most people—especially successful ones and especially gurus and instructors—switch meanings of the word “failure,” sometimes mid-sentence. It makes them sound more accomplished and invincible. Sadly, it also makes learning harder. I’ll simplify it.

What is failure?

How can something that beginners fear become something that masters want? Any field with performance or public accountability—leadership, entrepreneurship, athletics, sports, music, acting, and so on—can create what people call failure.


Would you like to go on stage with only a microphone to make a room of strangers laugh, where some might heckle you if you don’t? Almost nobody would. We fear humiliation. Yet the top comedians—all of them—say that preparing for a big show requires them bombing. They know they have to test their material and that some of that material will bore their audiences.

They know they have to bomb, yet they do it. The more successful the comedian, they more they bomb.

Why do the successful ones continue where most of us stop? I took a long time to figure it out.

Failure is how you feel about your results

Most people look at trying to get people to laugh and instead getting silence as failure. They look at the external results. But we don’t act based on external results. We act based on our emotions, which depend only partly on our environments. They also depend on our beliefs, which depend on our experiences.

A master who bombs, having learned from bombing before, feels encouraged, or at least not discouraged. The external result leads to different internal feelings for the master compared to the novice. Using the same word for external and internal results confuses people.

Successful people who say they look forward to failure mean they look forward to external outcomes different than they expected because they know they aren’t the end of the world and they will learn from them.

Beginners who don’t try for fear of failure are trying to avoid internal outcomes they expect because they don’t know they can learn from them and fear the external outcome will prevent them from trying again.

I suggest differentiating between internal and external results of things you try. Then you can learn to interpret external results how you want. When you do, you can turn those results—however much others call them failure—into learning and growth experiences. You can also ignore people who confuse others with self-serving definitions.

Professor of NYU
Joshua Spodek co-founded and led several ventures. He coaches and teaches leadership, entrepreneurship, sales, and related skills at Columbia Business School and NYU using experiential, project-based learning. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including an Astrophysics PhD and an MBA, and studied under a Nobel Laureate. He helped build an X-ray satellite for the European Space Agency and NASA, and holds six patents. His current passion is developing methods to master business's soft skills, even for geeks like him.