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How to bounce back from failure

Written by: ICAEW
Published on: 20 Sep 2023


Young woman smiling

When things don’t go quite according to plan, how can you build resilience and try again? We asked caba mental health expert Kirsty Lilley for her advice.


Keep perspective

It’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining how one failure might lead to another, then the prospect of losing your job, your home… So it’s important to rein in your imagination, avoid catastrophising and focus on what you can control in the moment. “We lose perspective, and think that everything about ourselves and our identity is predicated on one exam,” says Kirsty. “That’s just not how it works. We’re much more than an exam. We can take exams again, we have choices.”


Get comfortable with failure

“A lot of high achievers find failure uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of maturity – and handling it will really stand you in good stead,” says Kirsty. The most successful people are those who recognise that failure is part of life, and see it as an opportunity for growth. “People with a growth mindset are interested in the process and the learning opportunity – they know that disappointment is a part of human experience. All success is predicated on failure, really, because you don’t get the success unless you learn what works – and, by default, you learn what doesn’t work.”


Be kind to yourself

Many people motivate themselves through criticism, but beware the harsh inner voice. “If you’re berating yourself heavily, it triggers your fight or flight response; you’re walking around with your own internal threat. Who do you want in your head with you, this harsh self-critic you would never send anyone else to, or this compassionate ally who’s going to support you through?” says Kirsty. “Self-compassion is a better predictor of success. When you’re self-compassionate, you have a toolbox of being able to soothe yourself through disappointment, and get back on the horse.”


Don’t compare yourself to others

Remember this is your journey – no one else’s. Focus on the process rather than the outcome, and progress rather than perfectionism. “Try to avoid comparing yourself with others – we should really only be comparing ourselves with our past selves, and recognising our achievements to date,” advises Kirsty. “The fact that you’re in a position to take an accountancy exam means you’ve already achieved a huge amount in your life, and you already have the skills to get there.”


Use your support network

Lean on other people, whether that’s friends and family or professionals such as caba. “It’s a wise strategy to accept that we can’t do things alone,” says Kirsty. “When your brain is stressed and it’s not thinking about perspective or context, what you want to do is ‘borrow’ the nervous system of someone who is not quite as emotionally attached to your situation. By talking to that other person, it calms you down – it’s the relationship between you and the person who’s helping you that affects the change. Just being in the presence of someone else can help you find your own solutions.”


Prepare for next time

Think about what you are going to do differently next time. “Visualisation is very powerful,” says Kirsty, “and having a plan. If you can do something about it, do it. Focus on what you can control and influence, and set smart, realistic and achievable goals.” Acknowledging that failure may happen, and putting a plan in place for it, can also help to reduce anxiety. “That doesn’t mean talking yourself into failure, but it can be helpful to put a plan in place in case you do. So you might say to yourself, ‘If this doesn’t go quite as planned, what is my Plan B, and how can I put that into place loosely now?’”


caba is the charity that supports the wellbeing of the chartered accountant community. It provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students and their families across the globe. It provides a range of online resources as well as practical advice and support, which is free, impartial and strictly confidential.