3 Traits That Make You Resilient to Failure

We all know that we can’t choose when we fail, only how we react to failure when it does happen. But what’s less clear is why some people are better at brushing off mistakes than others.

In a paper titled Resilience to Emotional Distress in Response to Failure, Error or Mistakes: A Systematic Review, psychologists from University of Leeds and University of Sydney looked to answer that question by reviewing studies that had been done on the topic to date.

When they analyzed the data, they found three traits in particular that predicted who was less likely to experience emotional distress following failure:

  • High self-esteem: People who have positive views of themselves seem to be less likely to take failures to heart and more likely to move on when mistakes happen.
  • Positive attributional style: People’s attributional style has to do with how they explain the things that happen to them. People with more positive attributional styles tend to see themselves as responsible for good things that happen to them but to see bad things as arising from external flukes. People with more negative attributional styles see things the other way around, blaming themselves for the bad things and dismissing the good things as accidents.
  • Lower socially-prescribed perfectionism: Socially-prescribed perfectionism is a particular kind of perfectionism that has to do with the belief that other people are expecting perfection from you. As you can see, it makes sense that people who feel this way more strongly would also have a harder time accepting failure.

Overall, then, these findings suggest that the people who are most resilient to failure value themselves, give themselves credit for the good things that happen to them while not taking their mistakes personally, and aren’t driven by a need to be perfect for the sake of other people.

Put these three traits together and you have a skill that we can all aspire to: the ability to stay positive and keep moving forward when things don’t work out how we want.

Image: Flickr/Pierre Pouliquin under CC BY-NC 2.0


  1. Dr Annie Hickox on January 4, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Great post. Very useful and concise. I will be sharing it on Twitter and LinkedIn.

    • Neil Petersen on January 4, 2017 at 3:05 pm


  2. Grace Allison on January 4, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    I have a little problem with these traits. Especially number 2. I also can’t believe that it took a team of professionals figure this out. The short condensed version is people with a positive outlook on life and a positive feeling about themselves handle their failures. You know the difference between the glass is half-full or half-empty.
    But what you said in number 2.
    So basically what you’re saying is these people with positive attitudes take no responsibility for their contribution for their failures. They at some point are responsible in some way simply by the choices they made. But they have the ability to blow that off, take no responsibility for the part they played, pat themselves on the back and move on.
    I think that is part of the problem with this world. No one takes responsibility for the shit they are in. It’s always someone else’s fault.

    • Neil Petersen on January 4, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Hi Grace, thanks for reading and commenting!

      Regarding your first point, I think one way to look at this study is that yes, we all know having a “positive outlook” must be a good thing, but what specific aspects of having a positive outlook are most significant in terms of making people resilient to failure? The study looked at a whole bunch of different traits, and many traits related to having a “positive outlook” ended up being only weakly associated with resilience to failure or having no effect at all. The idea is that if we get specific about the exact traits that correlate with resilience to failure, we can be more efficient about designing interventions that build resilience rather than telling people to just have a “positive outlook.”

      As far as the “attributional style” trait, I guess it depends on what you mean by “taking responsibility” for failures. We can all probably agree that when things go wrong, it’s good to reflect on what you could’ve done differently to avoid repeating any mistakes. On the other hand, it’s not really helpful to internalize your failures and take them as as permanent reflections on who you are as a person.

      Of course, no one’s claiming there’s a perfect correlation between being a good person and being resilient to failure — it’s an interesting question of whether people who blame everything on others actually end up being more resilient. And it would probably take another study to answer. 😛