Failure vs. Setback—3 Questions to Understand the Differences

“When we see and find our identity through the work we do, it’s easy to see both our missed goals and professional failures as personal failures. ”
Amelia Gray

With a New Year, it’s easy to look forward with bold ambitions striving toward a “new me” However, despite our greatest attempts, reinventing a “brand new me” isn’t realistic. But the question remains—how do we grow without becoming disengaged or stagnant? At Amenable, we believe the heart of change begins in honest reflection. As we look at what we’d like to work on in ourselves or our organizations from the past year, it can be helpful to understand the difference between failure vs. setback—was that a mere goal we missed or was it a failure? 

failure vs. setback

Failure vs. Setback in the Mind of a Young Softballer

I played softball as a kid. Most of the other nine-year-old girls on my team were hoping to (maybe) make it to first base and land a good post-game snack. However, I knew I was destined for greatness. I spent almost every afternoon and evening in the yard with my brothers, training for a big moment. 

My moment came in our playoff game. When I stepped up to the plate, we were down one point with two outs in the bottom of the sixth—a full nine innings was deemed far too intense for nine year old girls. I considered myself a heavy hitter and I’d been training for this, so when the umpire called strike one, I wasn’t phased. After all, a strike was better than a bad hit. After strike two, I started to get nervous. When I soon struck out, I stood in shock. 

I finally made my way back to the dugout, where my coach told me not to worry about missing the ball, but I knew I hadn’t “missed”—I failed. 

failure vs. setback

What’s the Difference Between Failure and Setback? 

We could probably find any number of examples of disappointment—my little league experience, a New Year’s Resolution, a new, shaky marketing strategy, a floundering relationship, a struggling business. But in each of these contexts, there are a few factors that might cause us to classify one thing as a missed goal or setback vs. a failure. 

January is a time for something new. But as we plan for the coming year and reflect on the past one, we often find ourselves attempting to reconcile with the shortcomings of the past year. It begs the question, what’s the difference between merely missing a goal and failing—and what do we do about it? 

1. How big is the failure? 

When it comes to a setback or missing a goal that we set for ourselves, the first factor to think about is its magnitude. While a comprehensive word study on the ideas of “missing” and “failing” could be fascinating, I opted for some casual googling on the two words instead. I stumbled upon HiNative, a global, online forum where language learners ask linguistic questions that are answered by first-language (L1) speakers. 

When an English student asked about the difference between the two, the L1 user answered,‘Miss’ is like you fail at one thing, like [you] miss one math problem. ‘Fail’ is failing an entire thing. You can fail a test. (‘Fail a math problem’ is unnatural.)” 

This explanation gets at one layer of the distinction between missing and failing—magnitude. The bigger the goal (think, opening a business or beginning a military mission), the more likely we are to classify missing that goal as failure. For nine-year-old Amelia, strike three in practice might have been a miss, but in a real game, it was more than that. 

2. How long does it last? 

Closely related to the magnitude of a shortcoming is its permanence. One of the main differences between setbacks and failures is how permanent an obstacle becomes. In my own case, I had missed the ball not only in a real game, but also in a playoff game, knocking my team out of the competition altogether—there was no coming back from this. 

We glorify grit and see the persistent as heroes. In the world of sports, politics, business, the military, and many others, there are remarkable examples of what, at first, looks like failure, but through determination and perseverance turn to miraculous success. After all, in a popular quote that is famously misattributed to Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

3. What does this failure say about who I am? 

The third, and arguably most powerful, distinction between missing and failing  is our own sense of identity. In an article titled, “When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More” from Harvard Business Review, Timothy O’Brien talks about our relationship with our work. He says, “…when you bring most of yourself to your role—your experience, training, abilities, knowledge, effort, quirks, and passions—you feel as though you are more than just your role.” When we see and find our identity through the work we do, it’s easy to see both our missed goals and professional failures as personal failures. 

Nine-year-old Amelia wanted to be great on the field, so I had tied my identity to being a good softball player. Sure, my big moment happened during an important game that had the potential of ending my team’s season prematurely, but the biggest blow had to do with the way I viewed myself. 

failure vs. setback

Failure vs. setback—mere linguistics? 

The words we use to describe a shortcoming of some kind isn’t merely a linguistic choice. They can reveal how we relate to the goals we set and success we strive for in the first place. Do we see them as bigger than they are? Do we consider them more permanent? Do we think of them as essentially connected to our identity? 

Whether our role is a nine-year-old little leaguer, youth ministry leader, financial analyst, social worker, or business owner, we’ll all face challenges, some of which we’ll knock out of the park and others where we’ll  strike out. However, once we understand failure vs. setback—even if that distinction is in our own minds—we can better navigate the way we respond to the shortcomings we’re up against. 

P.S. Setting some goals for the New Year? Check out A Procrastinator’s Guide to Planning: Why We Do Our Goal Setting in February for a few tips from Amenable. 

Amelia Gray
Amenable Alumna
Amelia loves connecting with people through language by finding the right word for the right moment. She hopes that sharing her creative process will help other people be confident in their own. In her spare time, you can find her birdwatching or developing her Spanish.


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