How to move on after failure — and rebuild your confidence

Dec 21, 2020 /

Years of planning and years of hard work aren’t enough to protect you from failure.

That’s the difficult lesson learned by astronomer Erika Hamden, an astrophysics professor at the University of Arizona and a TED Fellow. She and a team of researchers spent 10 years building FIREBall, a telescope designed to hang from a giant balloon 130,000 feet in the stratosphere and observes clouds of hydrogen gas. They finally deployed on September 22, 2018 — but there was a problem.

The balloon, it turns out, had a hole and crash-landed in the New Mexico desert. In a painful instant, the team saw all their work — and all the data they’d hoped to collect — collapse. But, as Hamden has since found, there are things you can do to move on from failure and rebuild your confidence. (Editor’s note: In November, TED and Dove Advanced Care partnered in a special workshop at TEDWomen2020 where Erika Hamden discussed some of the ideas presented here.) 

As we know all too well, failure happens to anyone — not just to the people creating space telescopes. A presentation flops, a start-up has a bumpy launch, a store goes under, a writer gets blocked. This can be a huge blow and can often prevent you from trying again.

But Hamden suggests taking a cue from the scientific method, which regards failure as an important —  and necessary — step towards achieving progress. “The whole premise of science is to prove that your hypothesis is wrong,” she told TED Ideas. “Discovery is mostly a process of finding things that don’t work, and failure is inevitable when you’re pushing the limits of knowledge,” she says.

Here, she shares advice for bouncing back, whether you’re pushing the bounds of outer space or hunkered down in a home office.

1. Use your to-do list to boost your confidence 

To build confidence for the big goals, you first need to focus on the tiny ones, and that starts with the actions you take every day. After Hamden makes her daily to-do list, she looks at the list and asks herself,  “What is the one thing on here that I want to do the least?”

She says, “I think a tint bit about why, and then I make myself do it.” Quite often, she finds the task is one that — deep down — she is unsure how to do or is worried she might fail at. As she explains, “Confidence gets built when you try something new that’s a little scary, and you succeed and then you do it again and again. You have to get into a process of being brave.”  Your reluctance or fear is usually a signal that you care.

When you notice yourself avoiding something, ask yourself what you’re scared of and consider what would happen if you failed. You’d be disappointed, of course, if things go as badly, but what would the actual cost be to you?

“I used to do this all the time when I was a student and taking exams,” says Hamden. “I would be like, ‘No matter what happens, I’m still going to be alive at the end of this.’ A lot of the negative downsides are frequently in our heads.”

2. Separate your value from your work

When you fail, one knee-jerk reaction is to apply that failure to your overall worth, thinking, “If no one buys my pitch/product/idea, then it, and I, must not be very good.”

But that thinking — in addition to making you feel lousy — causes you to miss out on some valuable feedback that can help you move forward. “I think the point of doing something is being able to ask afterwards: ‘What did you learn from it?'” says Hamden. “You learn more when things don’t go correctly.”

In the disappointing weeks after FIREBall’s failed launch, Hamden took time off, and she made a point of not dwelling on any one feeling or turning her defeat into a referendum about her as a person. “You are valuable because you exist,” she says. “I think it’s really important to avoid those feelings of guilt or shame — feeling guilty about something is a way to make sure you never pick it up again.” Remind yourself: Your work is just something you do — and yes, it is an important part of your life — but it’s not a reflection of your value as a person.

3. Develop — and depend on — a mutual support group 

Developed by writers and best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, who coauthored the recent book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, the concept of Shine Theory is, as Sow and Friedman put it, “an investment, over the long term, in helping someone be their best self — and relying on their help in return [to do the same].” Shine Theory can apply to all your relationships, not just your personal friendships.

The more you shine, the more you light up everyone around you. While it can sometimes feel strange to share your  accomplishments for fear of coming across as a braggart, Shine Theory is about leaning into the idea of mutual abundance and how someone else’s success doesn’t take away your own. In fact, you get a boost.

Building your own support group can also help you get through moments of self-doubt or failure. To find these relationships, Hamden advocates having open conversations in which you plainly state what you need.

“When you have a friendship where you can say, ‘I’m feeling really down, can I talk to you?’ or ‘I’m really thrilled and want to celebrate,'” then your failures and successes don’t have to stop and start with you,” she explains. “If you feel like you don’t have people who are capable or willing to do that,  seek them out and cultivate these relationships. You can tell yourself, ‘I’m valuable’ every day, but if the people around you don’t value you, it’s going to be hard for you to believe that.”

And if you find yourself interacting with people who leave you feeling not so good about yourself, you should avoid them — or minimize your time with them — in the future, says Hamden.

4. Remember that no one cares about your failures as much as you do

For better or worse, everyone is the hero of their own story, says Hamden. As a result, “people are not paying as close attention as you think that they are” to your personal failures. However, you might be in a professional environment where others are scrutinizing your performance, and you can learn from their responses.

For example, if you stumble and a coworker takes the opportunity to bring you down further, unfortunately you’ll know that this might not be a healthy environment for you. “The way people react tells you so much about them,” says Hamden, “and it helps to inform you about the world that you’re in.”

5. Be mindful of burnout 

As you work on your next challenging project, it’s important for you to set strict limits and boundaries on the time spent on it because the longer you’re able to put in on a project, the more you can build your confidence. “Getting time away on a regular basis is really important,” says Hamden.

Taxing projects are frequently a combination of a marathon and a sprint —  many, many intense deadlines and tasks on the way towards accomplishing a larger goal. So take the time to celebrate those sprints after they’re done, says Hamden, comparing it to the common practice of relaxing into the savasana pose after a challenging yoga session.

6. Believe in the possibility of future success  

The level of effort you put into something can correlate to how you feel about its failure — the bigger and more important it is, the more disappointed you’ll feel when it doesn’t pan out. As you get more distance between yourself and your failure, most likely you’ll be amazed at your own resilience. Reflecting on the FIREBall launch more than two years later, Hamden has a new perspective: “I got through that project and mission, and I can get through anything.”

Now she and her colleagues are preparing for their next launch in 2021. No matter what happens, she says, “the universe will still be there.”  Sometimes getting past failure is as simple as looking up and believing something new is possible.

Watch Erika Hamden’s TED Talk here: