How Failure Fuels Growth with 5 Ways to Help Clients Succeed | by Dr. Irena O'Brien

Happy Successful Client at desk giving the thumbs up

We all want the road to success to be smooth, with no setbacks or discomfort along the way. It would certainly be easier.

But that's not how growth and progress work. If it were, Einstein would not have developed the theory of relativity, Edison would not have invented the lightbulb, Alexander Graham Bell would not have invented the telephone and The Beatles would not have become one of the most successful and iconic bands of our time.

Setbacks and discomfort fuel success

On the contrary, we need setbacks and discomfort to fuel success.

But it all depends on how we deal with these setbacks and pain.

For example, Leslie (2019) reports that "Top athletes—and, it turns out, many others—have a way of turning pain into rocket fuel. The defeat becomes a reason to push themselves even further the next time."

So even if you don't have the success you dreamed of, you're still better off by having put in the effort. In fact, studies have found that:

"athletes who just missed out on the top podium spot went on to live longer and more successful lives than those who won. Silver medallists were more ambitious in their post-sport careers, finding better paid jobs. By the age of 80, about half of them were still alive, compared to about a third of gold medallists" (Leslie, 2019).

The same patterns show up for scientists: the scientists who just missed out on funding early in their careers went on to publish more high-impact papers than those whose funding had just scraped through.

Uncomfortable feelings are a sign that you are improving

Growth and progress are also often accompanied by uncomfortable feelings. So if your goal is to become a better public speaker, you'll experience awkwardness and discomfort before you notice any improvement in your public speaking abilities.

This is normal, especially considering that fear of public speaking is one of our top phobias. But sadly, negative emotional experiences lead many of us to abandon our goals.

In an improvisation experiment (doing improv is scary to most people, too), some of the workshop participants were told that the goal of the improv workshop was to feel awkward and uncomfortable. The result?

"The participants who had been told to pursue feelings of awkwardness spent more time improvising and showed more risk-taking… These participants also were more likely to believe that they had achieved their personal goals during the exercise" (Warren, 2023).

This was just one of several experiments looking at feelings of awkwardness and discomfort when working toward a goal. And they all came to the same conclusion:

"We should seek out the feelings of awkwardness or discomfort that are often associated with personal growth, and interpret them as signs of progress towards our goals. This can motivate us when faced with what we might otherwise simply see as negative emotional experiences" (Warren, 2023).

So, what's the moral of this story?

We need "moments of challenge or trauma in order to develop resilience. It's the rocky road, not the smoothed path, that leads to greatness" (Leslie, 2019).

"Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche was right: what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" (Leslie, 2019).

So how can we help our clients and ourselves deal with setbacks and negative emotional experiences when working toward our goals?

Here are 5 ways to boost your clients' chances of success

  1. Recognize: Remember that without discomfort and setbacks, there is no growth. Help your clients recognize that setbacks and uncomfortable feelings are an essential part of progress and growth. Anaïs Nin famously wrote, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."
  2. Reframe: Help your clients reframe their attitude toward discomfort and setbacks as a sign they're making progress toward their goals (and becoming more resilient).
  3. Break it down: When you have success, no matter how small, your brain releases dopamine, which predicts success on the next task. So help clients break down goals into smaller tasks where they can be successful.
  4. Stay motivated with many small successes: To keep dopamine release and motivation high all day, structure the day as a series of small tasks that lead to your goal.
  5. Take care of your body: Talk to your clients about eating well, exercising and getting adequate sleep. Motivation to keep going even when things feel bad is easier when we have a healthy body—because it's the foundation for a healthy mind.


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Dr. Irena O'Brien

Contributing Author:

Dr. Irena O'Brien, PhD, is a neuroscientist and neuroscience educator. She has been studying neuroscience and psychology for over 20 years following a successful career as a chartered accountant. She is passionate about neuroscience and sharing it with others. She reads and writes about the latest research in neuroscience and psychology in a way that is designed to offer us practical tools and strategies to better our own lives and the lives of our clients. 

She founded The Neuroscience School in 2017. Her mission is to create self-awareness on the planet and she does that by teaching coaches and helping professionals learn about neuroscience and how they can apply what they learn to help their clients. She is known for her ability to simplify neuroscience research into what's essential and practical for coaches to use in their work with clients. Her neuroscience program for coaches is currently certified by the ICF for continuing coach education units. You can find her at

Learn more about Irena & see all their articles here >>

Image of Happy Successful Client at desk giving the thumbs up by LightField Studios via Shutterstock


  1. Julie Snow

    I'm excited to see Dr. Irena as a guest writer!! She is great! I have taken her Neuroscience for Coaches program, and it is fantastic...I highly recommend it!

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    now the world is growing rapidly online. We are coming with the best life coach online in an interesting and easy way. Life coach will definitely help you to grow your attitude towards life and help in your professional growth.


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