May 19, 2022
It's never fun to fail. It doesn’t feel good, and sometimes it evokes feelings of embarrassment. It can be a (hopefully temporary) blow to self-esteem.
Like everyone else, I try not to let it happen often — but when it inevitably does, I’ve almost always found that there’s something to learn from the experience. When things don't turn out as expected, or something doesn’t go the way we plan, here are a few steps to take afterward.
Take a breather. Facing something disappointing isn’t easy, and you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed. Immediately after, you need to take your mind off it for a little while — it's hard to think clearly directly following a frustrating event. For me, that looks like spending time with my children, playing fetch with my dog or doing something active like going on a hike. Whatever it is, try to be present in the activity so you can focus on that and that alone. I value hard work, and sometimes ignoring a situation feels lazy — but in order to clear your mind, you need rest.
According to an article in Scientific American, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” While it may feel the opposite in the moment, giving yourself a real break will actually help productivity overall and might even lead to stronger ideas. Give yourself (and more importantly, your brain) a little leisure time so that you can come back with a clearer head.
Now it’s time to understand what happened exactly. Was there something you could have prepared for differently, something unexpected that you couldn’t have known would affect you, or a mixture of both? No matter the nature of what we consider to be a failure, there has to be a catalyst, or a reason we didn’t classify it as a success.
After resting and clearing your mind, try to go over the situation and see what could have gone wrong, or in a different direction. If it helps, replay what led up to it and see if there could have been a better way to prepare. Being able to identify what could have influenced the situation will be of great help later on in the process.
I’m an ambitious person, and I definitely consider myself a risktaker. That means my rejection rate is probably a little higher than those who don’t take as many risks, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
When you think about it that way, you haven’t really failed — you’ve just gotten a step closer to what you need to do to be successful. Both success and failure are part of the journey to growth, and neither should be seen as an endpoint. If you can accept failure as part of your path to success, as an obstacle to iterate around rather than be stopped by, you’ll be able to move forward from it. Reframing doesn’t mean wishing the outcome hadn’t occurred or even occurred differently, it’s about looking at the outcome through a different lens and understanding what you can get out of it.
Finally, it’s time to revisit the situation. This can be the next day, the next week, or even the next month—it all depends on the nature of your situation. But if you’re like me, you’ll want to try and attain the outcome you were initially hoping for, which means taking another look with fresh eyes. Is it a presentation that needs to be reorganized? A pitch that needs a new strategic outline? Or even a conversation that should have been approached differently? No matter what it is—whether it’s work-related, personal, or something in between—you should be able to identify what might need to be included, removed, or changed. Then, you can try it again, and this time you may be happier with the outcome.
While it is important to face failure head-on and try to work through it, it’s also important to remember that this is something everyone goes through, usually many times throughout their life. When I’ve written about risk in the past, I think about ways to mitigate risks and take calculated risks. That’s the best way I know to avoid failing at something when possible.
However, as I've written before, nothing great ever occurred without sizable, associated risk. In other words: Great things don’t come easily, and definitely not without their challenges. The emphasis should be not on failure itself, but on what you can take away from it and what comes next. Remember not to get discouraged. There is always going to be more to learn, growth to achieve and new opportunities to come.