There’s No Failure, Only Feedback


You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘There’s no failure, only feedback’

It gets bandied about a lot these days, but what does it actually mean, and what are its practical applications for your daily life, learning and developing expertise?

What happens when you stand in front of a mirror?

Do I have a zit? How does this outfit look? Am I looking slimmer, more muscly? Have my eyebrows gone rampant, or has my hair gone frizzy/receded/need washing? Any clothing malfunction? Make-up OK? Etc. You might even check out how you’d look as a TV star with a substitute mic in your hand (aka a hairbrush!).

I can tell you that you don’t look in a mirror to admire the mirror. You look to get some kind of reflection, some kind of feedback about your appearance. It helps you see yourself more clearly, both your strengths and areas for improvement.

While a mirror can give you feedback on your appearance, other types of feedback can help you improve your skills and change your outlook on life. Read on to find out how.

It’s hard to ignore a baby who’s learning to walk

Your heart’s in your mouth as you sit on the edge of your chair ready to catch her as she teeters from chair to coffee table, before careening into the cupboard!

Baby learning to walk

She falls over. A lot! She frequently hurts herself. But after she bawls, screams and cries, she gets straight back up and has another go. And another. And another. Eventually, she succeeds!

She graduates to toddlerdom!

I doubt there’s an adult on the planet who learned to walk the first time they tried. That doesn’t matter because, as youngsters, we have plenty of spirit, resilience and determination. You can easily witness these traits in tiny humans, where failure is not an option. They don’t even know what failure even is.

Eventually (usually after multiple injuries), we walk so naturally that it’s easy to forget just how difficult learning to walk was. It requires good coordination, being able to balance on your own and shift your body weight from one leg to another, to move forward — and not backwards on to your bum — or sideways into that coffee table!

As a human being, you’re innately geared to experience all the many facets of life and to respond to the feedback you receive, either from your environment, from your mistakes or from others. And to get up and try again. And again. You were born to be resilient and successful. You were not born to fail.

“There’s no failure, only feedback.”

This phrase underlies one of the presuppositions, or premises, taught in NLP. But what does it actually mean?

Given that your beliefs and premises filter your experiences, you are much more likely to lead a happy life by filtering your experiences through positive beliefs rather than through negative ones. So the question, when examining this premise is, not whether it is ‘true’ but whether it is ‘useful’.

So, is a premise that ‘there’s no failure, only feedback’, more useful than its opposite?

If you believe in failure, you’re more likely to experience it as your reality. I’ve heard people talk about others as being ‘destined to failure’. Where Failure seems like an undesirable destination. Probably a dead end! Some people who have failed more than once adopt the word as a noun to describe themselves, e.g., “I am a failure.” Failure, in this sense, has become part of their very identity.

Labelling mistakes as failures will often prevent you from trying again

The word failure implies that it’s already over, done and dusted and you can’t change anything. This is rarely the case as, with a little imagination and some good feedback, we can always rescue our mission. But believing in failure may make you unwilling to step outside your comfort zone. You’ll forget that you’re a glorious being of light and love, put upon the earth to do great things.

Feedback develops expertise

You know that to become skilful at anything requires practice, practice, and more practice. If we could be good at everything, the first time we tried, we’d all be experts. So useful practice must include making those mistakes, learning from them, adapting, and having another go.

It might also include specific feedback from others. Or feedback from the environment, (for example, not looking where you’re going and banging your head on a low hanging tree branch!) No one wants to keep banging their head — either literally or metaphorically. So successful people take on board any type of feedback and incorporate it into their practice to develop expertise.

Michael Jordan, widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, faced a setback early in his career when he was dropped from his high school basketball team for being too short and inexperienced to make the cut.


This setback understandably disappointed Jordan, but he didn’t let it discourage him. He worked tirelessly to improve his game, practising for hours each day and focusing on his weaknesses. He eventually grew several inches taller and became one of the best players on the junior varsity team, earning a spot on the varsity squad the following year.

Jordan’s experience of being cut from the high school team taught him an important lesson about hard work and perseverance. He used the setback as motivation to improve his skills and prove his worth as a basketball player, and he had one of the most successful careers in NBA history. He won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, earned many accolades and awards, and is widely regarded as one of the most iconic and influential athletes of all time.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
– J. K. Rowling

This quote from J. K. Rowling underlies the grit she needed to succeed. Multiple publishers rejected the author of the Harry Potter series before Bloomsbury finally agreed to publish her first book. Rowling’s resilience and determination paid off, and she became one of the best-selling authors of all time.

“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
– Henry C Link

Having a belief that everything you do is providing you with feedback can help you learn and recover more quickly from mis-takes. You will look consciously for useful teachings, make adjustments, and move on. The knowledge you gain and the adjustments you make will give you experiences that add to the wisdom you’ll accumulate over your lifetime, and maybe even pass on to others.

As the toddlers I mentioned in the first paragraph get older, they may be discouraged or held back by their well-meaning parents, who want to protect them from the dangers of life.

Kids on play equipment

In doing so, parents often rob them of the opportunity to gain firsthand experience and feedback. Parents know the dangers because they’ve experienced them personally — and often painfully. And they’ve learned from them. But children learn by having their own experiences, not by being constrained.

“Success is not the absence of failure; it’s the persistence through failure.”
– Aisha Tyler

Once outside the home, there are many rules imposed by councils, governments, and schools. Supposedly, they’re designed to protect people. But do they protect us — or are they just another way of dumbing down society, creating fear so that we don’t even bother trying?

The pass/fail system doesn’t help

At school, you might have been further handicapped by the pass/fail system. In school tests and exams, you either pass or fail. While there are different degrees of passing, perhaps a ‘C’ pass or an ‘A+’ pass, there’s only one form of failure, usually shown by a large, red F!

You may have become conditioned and pressurised by this pass/fail approach as you moved through the schooling system. And all it really proves is that you can learn and retain information long enough to pass exams on the subject. It’s no indication of your character, your kindness, your sense of humour or anything that society really values. The education system does a great job of sorting people into those who can pass exams and those who struggle.

Princess Diana, noted for her compassion, sense of style, charisma and for being a tireless promoter of many charities, failed every one of her GCSE examinations.

By the time you get to adulthood, you may well have learnt all about failure. In fact, you might have had it drummed into you over and over, so that if you don’t have a natural ability for something you’re interested in, you give up and move on to something else rather than ‘fail’ at it.

sign saying, forget the mistake, remember the lesson.

I know a few people who have attempted a new sport or taken up a new hobby. If they weren’t able to achieve a certain amount of skill in a short amount of time, they deemed themselves as having failed and gave up. If you don’t take a chance because you are afraid of failing, then you have failed anyway.

Albert Einstein didn’t speak until age four and didn’t read until age seven. His teachers labeled him “slow” and “mentally handicapped.”

Failure is a concept rather than a reality

Those that take feedback constructively can learn from their experiences. They will move ahead and develop. Those who take feedback as a personal affront are more likely to become defensive and justify their own limited actions, without taking on board the learning that is available to them.

There’s no failure, only feedback.

Next time you’re tempted to give up or resign yourself to failure, think about that baby overcoming incredible odds in her attempt to stand up and walk.

You were that baby once

So take on board the feedback you’re getting, either from the task itself, your environment or directly from others and, as the song goes, ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.’

By the way, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang the song in a 1936 film called Swing Time. In Astaire’s first screen test, the judges wrote:

“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”

However, Astaire persisted and eventually landed a role in the film “Dancing Lady” in 1933.

He starred in many classic films, including ‘Top Hat,’ ‘Swing Time’, and ‘Easter Parade, and became a beloved figure in Hollywood and the most famous dancer of all time, his stage and film career spanning 76 years.

He makes plenty of mistakes in this clip from Swing Time. Listen to the song lyrics.

Good job he didn’t believe in failure, only feedback!

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Tags: Beliefs and values, Goals, Language, Motivation and taking action, Resilience, Self-confidence and self-esteem, Thinking and mindset


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