Unwrapping the Gift of Failure

By Ashley Nelson, Search Inside Yourself teacher-in-training


Accepting disappointments, obstacles, and failures as gifts does not come naturally to most people, even less so to ambitious executives and other overachievers who focus on winning and being the best in everything they do. Yet disappointments, obstacles, and yes, even failures arise inevitably for everyone who strives to live life to its fullest.

Now, I’m not saying we should necessarily throw a party to celebrate subpar performance, or a roadblock on our path to success and happiness, or even falling flat on our faces in front of a crowd. What I’m saying is that failures are a part of life. If we can embrace them with humility and curiosity, we can actually come to the realization that they are gifts of enormous value. 

The secret lies in unwrapping the value.

Mindfulness practices help us to do that, and in the process, learn and grow. They teach us to strip back the story, to get real, and to become curious about accepting responsibility. They enable us to become more comfortable with uncertainty and vulnerability and open up pathways to greater resilience. 

Here are some of the valuable lessons I’ve learned from the challenges I’ve faced personally and professionally:

For starters, failures and disappointments help keep us humble. The greatest leaders of all time have been recognized for both their greatness and their humility. It’s a defining characteristic that, ironically, is hard to define, yet easy to recognize. Once acquired, it’s extremely graceful and attractive and creates connections on a human level. By helping others feel comfortable with us, humility can also infuse the teams we lead with a sense of safety and trust—critical for taking risks, innovation and creativity.

Failures and disappointments also force us to deepen our awareness. By living in the now, we can recognize the flat sides of ourselves, whether in our businesses or our personal relationships. Done non-judgmentally, this can actually elevate our capacity to lead, change our relationship with stress (a byproduct of failure), and help us become more effective and resilient individuals.

Failure exposes us in a way that few things can. If we’re honest about it, such exposure makes us very vulnerable. Curiosity comes into play big time. Leaning into discomfort rather than avoiding it can unearth massive opportunities for growth and set us on a trajectory to become our most authentic selves.

Life teaches us how.

On a very personal note, my family has struggled with some serious and life-threatening conditions with one of our daughters over the past seven years. When I reflect back on these years, I recognize that the pain and suffering surrounding this time has been an unusual gift of sorts.

It forced my husband and me to be more present at home and to create a much different sort of work/life balance. We took a hard look at our values to assess if we were truly connected to them in how we lived our lives. The insight gained invited us to make changes in our family dynamics and gave us a deeper level of awareness, empathy, and compassion for all who struggle with illness.

I’ve also had to embrace adversity in my professional life. A few years back, as the retail industry totally reinvented itself, I had a key leadership role in helping my company navigate change and, more specifically, fashion a much more nimble, streamlined organizational structure. This meant reducing headcount, particularly at the director and vice president levels. Letting go of enormously talented people, at all levels, who have invested many years and tremendous amounts of energy was tough. Knowing the dramatic impact on their lives made it especially painful. 

I found my answer in compassion. Staying connected to each person as a fellow human being, for me, was the only way through—acknowledging the threat to their security, the effects on their families, the blows to their confidence, and especially the reality that I didn’t have an easy answer to make it right. On a personal level, I had to accept that all I could do was BE with them in whatever ways served them best—as a support, a future reference, a friend.

Such challenges, both personal and professional, teach us to be vulnerable. That vulnerability fosters a sense of rawness and realness that wakes us up and forces us to connect with what life is really all about. What we discover is not the story of our life— the way we told ourselves it would be—but the reality of life in this moment. 

Translated into the context of business, when we can openly and honestly confront failure or disappointment as leaders, we are forced to navigate uncertainty. Getting comfortable with uncertainty is a valuable gift for any leader and a great place to live during disruptive times. 

In the past couple of years, as I’ve transitioned from the relative security of life as a corporate executive to the exciting challenges of entrepreneurship, I’ve experienced the value of living at peace with uncertainty. As a corporate executive, I participated in a two-day Search Inside Yourself leadership program. During the program,  I learned and practiced a set of tools and a way of being to navigate the stress and challenges of corporate leadership, which served as an unlock for leading with authenticity, insight, compassion and purpose.  I am now in the process of becoming a certified SIY teacher so I can share those transformative principles and practices with the greater world. 

One thing I know for sure, life inevitably gives us both triumphs and disappointments. Accept both as gifts and use them to the fullest.

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Ashley Nelson is a former Fortune 500 senior exec at the Fossil Group, a SIY Teacher in Training and founder, mindfulness teacher and coach @ Inseus - www.inseus.com