optimism, failure, how to overcome failure, try again, succeed, success, self-care, self-empowerment

Optimism: The Key to Starting Over When We’ve Failed

Once we’ve failed at a resolution or a goal–how do we re-engage and start again? We’ve all felt the weight of this experience–the frustration and the shame of it. How do we rise up, dust ourselves off, and dare to try again?

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” -Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan’s secret–our secret–to overcoming failure? Optimism.

That’s right–optimism.

Does that mean we have to have a sunny disposition? Or see the world through rose-colored glasses–trick ourselves into believing what’s clearly not true?

Not at all.

Optimism is a choice to see the truth and the lessons imbedded in the experience–in the failure. It’s the energy beneath our persistence as we get up repeatedly and try again. It’s our innate understanding that we get better with practice. That tomorrow will be a better day than today. It’s how we succeed. 

Failure is just discovery, plain and simple. It shows us what we don’t yet know. What we haven’t discovered. What is uncertain and mysterious. What has potential and promise.

Optimism Can Be Learned

Optimism is our choice to embrace the uncertainty of our lives and claim it’s potential–our potential for a way that works better for us, that we can succeed at.

It seems like some of us are naturally optimistic–we see that glass as half full. Others of us struggle–we’re so weighed down by the struggle and disappointment of life that doesn’t always go our way, that we don’t see what’s possible.

Optimism is a muscle–it’s a choice that must be practiced. It is available to us all.

We Must Fail

We must screw up, fall down, mess up… It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to prove to ourselves that we risked trying at anything. Every moment of every day, we walk into the unknown. As we embark on our life journeys, we have no idea where we are going. There will be change. How the change occurs will be uncertain.

There are always risks: we might be wrong, we might be right, we might have to try really hard, we might have to ask for help (oh no!), we may get in over our heads, and we will inevitably have to learn new things—about what to do, about ourselves and what we are made of. It all takes great courage. And, inevitably, we will fail.

And when we do fail, because we certainly will, we must be tender with ourselves as life offers up its most precious lessons to us in this way. The ones that we give birth to ourselves out of our effort, determination, and creativity. Our failures are the guideposts, the intuitive guidance, the Divine intervention that redirect us down a new and unexpected path, the path that is better for us at this time or that closes doors to old ways that no longer serve us. So we must learn to say “thank you” instead of hanging our heads.

We Can Choose Optimism

The plans that don’t work out, the doors that close, can smash us. It can feel like the end of the road, the end of hope. But looked at another way, they may, in fact, be the redirect we needed but forgot to look for. Maybe the door we were determined to open had to close to help us find the better one–the door to our better future, our success, to greater possibilities.

Optimism isn’t fluffy delusion. It’s damned practical. It’s strength. It’s courage. And it’s not for sissies. The door closing hurts. The dashed expectations sting. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility. That’s Life School. It’s what we’re here for. Life carving us into better versions of ourselves as we embrace the challenge and inevitability of it. That’s grace.

How to Begin Again After We’ve Failed

  • Breathe.
  • Let it hurt and sting.
  • Lick those wounds.
  • Breathe and sigh.
  • It hurts so much, but surely we can say, “this too shall pass.”
  • Feel the softening.
  • Sense the opening of new possibilities, of strength even.
  • Yes, time to get up.
  • Breathe.
  • Self assessment: What did I learn? Did I jump in too quickly? Do I need more information or support?
  • Start over.
  • Breathe some more.
  • Jump back in. Persevere.
  • Feel that strength rising–we must tenderly praise, praise, praise ourselves for our effort.

Share with us your stories of failure, optimism, and starting over.


Karyn Shanks, MD. Four Simple Steps to Jumpstart Change.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Deprivation: the Challenge of Lifestyle Change.

Karyn Shanks, MD. It’s Not Failure: Applying the Three-Tack Rule of Failure.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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