Failing, Falling and Rising

Photo: Dario Veronesi

Richard Wurman, is the inventor of the original TED talk. Multi-talented top of his class student/ architect/ethnographer/inventor and recipient of multiple honorary doctorates, he said:

“I was not successful. I later became less successful, and I was not certainly taken seriously, and it was a struggle. You have to accept that you’re going to fail, and I fail a lot, and I have failed and I’ll still fail.”

In that first 1984 TED, another great inventor/business man who failed and rose greatly was present: Steve Jobs. Wurman recounts “Jobs would not talk but brought the first 3 MACs computers for people to try”.

In last week’s article, we shared practices to increase vulnerability, a key element of wholehearted living and leadership. In this week’s article, we share four ‘resilience’ phases after ‘failure’ and the skills we can all learn to get up again to follow our dreams.

Receiving my MSc in Psychology in October 2018 was the beginning of a succession of failures, starting from square 1, and learning a new job. It was however also the beginning of much happiness and fulfilment. I share my mini CV of failures (and some success) over the last year and that of prominent public figures. Anyone considering retraining, launching something new or a change in direction, take heart. We can learn resilience skills, as Ted Roosevelt said, because:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Article At- A- Glance

  • Anyone who has ever attempted to do something meaningful has fallen, picked themselves up and tried again.
  • Pain is a fact of life. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have experienced adversity or trauma in their lives. However, ‘suffering’ in psychology is often viewed as ‘resistance’ to ‘what is’. We therefore learn skills so that we reframe our experience, which can lead to the cessation of suffering.
  • The path to resilience and rising back lies in working through our emotions, effects of stress and painful events. This work often leads to mastery of self, thriving, peak performance, meaning and purpose in life. This is what Dr Brown and others call ‘revolution’. It’s Transformation.
  • There are 4 stages after ‘Failure’ and practices within each phase we can learn to become resilient. They are: 1. Reckoning (welcome emotions) & Taking responsibility, 2. Rumbling with the Story (investigate the false beliefs), 3. Revolution, 4. Turning Pain into Resilience, Purpose and Meaning.
  • None of the above steps nor success (freedom to be, do, have what we desire) can take place if we do not do what we truly love or ‘find some meaning in what we produce’ (Brown, 2018). Spending time and resources to be in a place when we have meaning in/love what we do is arguably the most important investment we will ever make.

Photo: Samuel Zeller

Failures have been an inherent part of my journey from a very young age starting in sports and stage work from the age of 8, to the more recent ultra-competitive world of academia, in the form of attempting to publish research to doctoral and PhD level training applications.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

Steve Jobs

I have received scholarships and rejections, launched and folded various enterprises in equal amounts, put myself on some of the world’s most competitive world stage arenas (the London and New York theatre scenes) where I received very public “shaming’ criticism as well as praise, in equal amounts. Most recently, after spending five years retraining in Psychology, I did not get into the Doctoral programme and realised that many psychologists, who are now qualified Doctors went through four, five, some even six yearly applications and rejections until they finally got in (the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology in England has a yearly 4% intake rate). What courage, determination and passion it must have taken them! 

In a spirit of vulnerability, I share below a mini CV of my failures and successes in the last year, followed by the successes and failures of some of the most well-known public figures. 

Irena’s Failures (in red) and Successes (Black) in the last Year

As you can see the red dominates!

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.”
J.K. Rowling

Some of the Word’s Most Prominent Public Figures’ Biggest Failures and Successes

Photo: Joshua Earle

Reckoning, Rumbling and Revolution Lead to Transformation and Purpose 

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” 

Dr Brene Brown

Anyone who has ever attempted to do something meaningful has fallen, picked themselves up and tried again. To begin the journey with courage, Dr Brene Brown identified various stages we go through, as well as steps and skills we can learn and practice. Last week we touched upon “rumbling with vulnerability”, “living into our values” and “braving trust”. This week we explore “learning to rise” or how to be more resilient.

Dr Brown has distilled three core phases of reckoning, rumbling and revolution. In my own research, I found that transformation leads to meaning and purpose (the Why). Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have experienced adversity or trauma in their lives. However, ‘suffering’ in psychology is often viewed as ‘resistance’ to ‘what is’.

I found out in my research that the path to resilience and rising back lies in working through our emotions and effects of stress and painful events, which often leads to mastery of self, which then leads to thriving and peak performance. 

Below you will find how to start on the journey of resilience and daring greatly.

Photo: Lucas Clarysse

Step 1 – Dr Brown’s Reckoning

As highlighted in our latest article, it is very important to be mindful of our vulnerability and vulnerable moments.

Dr Brene Brown’s ‘Reckoning with our feelings and emotions’ has a further 2 steps: 

  • We welcome our emotions and allow ourselves to feel our feelings.  As we saw in last week’s blog, we learn emotional literacy, we name the feelings and not the thoughts. This is a very important distinction. A feeling is ‘I feel horrible’ or ‘I feel sad’. A thought will be like ‘I am out of balance’. Here we have distanced ourselves from the emotion. 
  • We get curious with our feelings and explore them further.
  • We ask ourselves ‘OK so you failed. How is this making you feel? Reply: I am angry.
  • We investigate further. ‘What are you angry about?’ We might find out that anger is caused by an inner critic who is shaming us for our attempt and failure for ex. Under the anger is a fear of feeling helplessness, sadness and heartbreak. There is nothing else left to feel underneath these 3 core feelings of life.
  • The practice becomes identifying the ‘false beliefs’ at the root of much of our feelings, learning to be with ‘what is’, ‘self-compassion’ etc.

The above two practices utilise similar skills and techniques we learn in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), Compassion Focused Therapies (using mindfulness), Inner Bonding (which I am trained in).

“I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

J.K. Rowling

Practice: Set aside some time each day for self-inquiry and reflection, and to practice the above steps.

Step 2 – Dr Brown’s Rumbling or ‘Taking Responsibility’

Dr Brown call this ‘rumbling with the story we tell ourselves’.

“I was elated, ecstatic and extremely surprised that we were successful.” Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 flight commander (over 1000 test pilot flights later)

If you think back about a time when you might have felt rejection, can you remember ‘the story you were telling yourself’? This phase is about being very honest with ourselves and to really catch ‘what we are telling ourselves’.

It’s going deeper to step 1 we touched upon previously. In CBT and other modalities, we continue investigating ‘the erroneous thoughts’ and ‘false beliefs’ behind a painful emotion. Dr Brown add that ‘rumbling’ requires self-awareness and honesty. When we start this practice we realise that a lot of the time we have told ourselves lies and it hurts. There might be a grieving process involved as we see, when start taking responsibility, how we create our reality by how we allow or not what we tell ourselves.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. “
Henry Ford

Dr Brown recommends ‘rumbling’ by writing our thoughts down. Many other coaching and therapeutic traditions also recommend this practice. One way is to set aside 20min of uninterrupted writing time where we allow all our thoughts to come to the page uncensored.

Practice: Try this short exercise next time you feel triggered. Ask yourself: “the story I am telling myself is….”. Write down your thoughts as a stream of consciousness.

Photo: David Travis

Step 3 – is The Revolution or ‘Stepping Out of The Trance’

Once we have ‘rumbled’ with our story and faced our truth, we are not the same person we were before we started. This phase is about ownership leading to self-empowerment as we decide how the original story we were telling ourselves ends. 

Dr Tara Brach, who regularly coaches various members of The US Senate in mindful meditation uses the phrase of ‘trance of unworthiness’, the false beliefs we allow ourselves to dictate our life story.

This phase can involve reframing our experience, using new language to tell our story. This leads to transformation.

Practice: Building onto the previous practice of ‘the story I am telling myself is…’, try finding out what you are preventing yourself from feeling by telling yourself this story.

Step 4 – Turning Pain Into Resilience, Purpose and Giving Back (Transformation)

As Dr Brown’s own experience of breakdown demonstrated, thriving, can result from a profound event or crisis ‘where a person’s sense of purpose, meaning, or identity is called into question’ (O’Leary, 1998).

Photo: Suzanne D. Williams

Transcending Our Previous Level Of Functioning

Like Dr Brown’s research, my own findings demonstrated that people become resilient when they transcend their prior level of functioning, ‘often accelerating upward psychologically’. What I noticed is that individuals who picked themselves up after ‘the fall’ seemed to have benefited mentally and emotionally from the adversity and began to flourish. Others taught what they learnt. No one returned to where they were previously. This is revolution and transformation.The person may refocus priorities and have a stronger sense of self. 

Transformations also means redefining ‘meaning’ in terms of faith, trust, hope, the whole concept of ‘self’: in relation to self, others, in personal life or at work.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs

Meaning is a very important concept in the study of happiness and wellbeing and in one theory by veteran father of positive psychology Professor Martin Seligman it is one of the three variables measured together with emotional happiness and engagement. 

Suffering can Lead To ‘The Why?” And Purpose

This was also echoed by psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor E. Frankl. After experiencing immense loss and suffering in concentration camps, he invented “meaning therapy”. This humanistic therapy technique has been hugely influential not only in psychology, but in sports psychology and high performing teams. Many athletes and peak performers, when injured, knocked down or on the verge of giving up remind themselves of ‘the why’. This concept reminds individuals how to make decisions which create significance in their lives. 

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Frankl described the crucial moment in the camp when he developed meaning therapy. On his way to work one day, he was worrying whether he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup and worried about bumping into a particularly sadistic guard. He realised at that point how narrow his thinking had become and how trivial and meaningless his life was. He knew in that moment that to survive, he had to find some purpose.  He managed to do this by imagining himself giving a lecture after the war on what he had learnt.Although he wasn’t sure he would survive, Frankl created concrete goals for himself. In doing so, he succeeded in rising above the sufferings of the moment.

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. ”

Michael Jordan

Practice: Try setting aside some ‘date with yourself’ time where all you do is follow the impulse (one after the other) for what brings you joy. Start small. Listen to your intuition and don’t question it. This might include doing things you might have liked as a child and stopped doing. This is a practice ‘which fills the well’ and is one that writers, artists, designers or anyone who engages in innovation, products/ services design often does.

Photo: Tommy Lisbon

Choosing To Do Something We Love or Meaning in What We Produce

“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up.”

Steve Jobs

In sum, graduating from old limiting and erroneous personal beliefs to taking responsibility for creating our successes in life is not easy. It does require loving what we do first and foremost, a great deal of courage, self-awareness, self-inquiry and honesty. In more difficult times, reaching out to others, seeking help, and at times, admitting that our worldview might have been wrong are also key, especially for innovation and adapting to change.

When we intentionally choose this path, of ‘being in the arena’, we discover that we will fail and fall but that it is not the end. We can learn skills to dust ourselves off, in the face of multiple falls, shaming and criticism, and rise up over and over.

What research (of colleagues’ and my own) highlights is that once one learns to stand up after the fall, something magic happens. One seems to see the world very differently. We find a whole new way of looking at and engaging with the world, which can lead to positive change, creativity, innovation, wellbeing, service to others, connection and ultimately freedom. Transformation can and does happen in response to failures and challenges and seems to be determined by an individual’s resilience capacity.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.

Steve Jobs

Thank you to the friend (you know who you are) who sent me the Ted Roosevelt quote in January this year when I needed it most. Thank you also to Dr Brown for her pioneering work in the fields of courage, shame and vulnerability, for giving us a new language, a new way of looking at the world and relating with each other, especially in the business and corporate world.


Brown, B. (2017) Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition 

Frankl, V. (2006) Man Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.

O’Leary, V. E. (1998). Strength in the Face of Adversity Individual and Social Thriving. Journal of Social Issues, 54, 425-446.

Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing: The practical guide to using positive psychology to make you happier and healthier. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Wurman, R.S. (2017) Understanding.Understanding. Richard Saul Wurman Publishing.