How to Learn From Failure

It’s a fact that nobody enjoys the feeling of failure – it’s a sentiment that runs deep and can significantly knock your confidence at work.

Having set up a project that was destined for greatness only to have your plans crumble in catastrophic style right in front of your eyes can be painful and embarrassing. Still, as is the case with many negative life experiences, there are often useful and powerful lessons to be learned from failure. Handled correctly, it can allow you to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes and become a stronger, more productive you.

Learning from failure isn’t always easy, but by following these steps, you can dust yourself off and learn a few valuable lessons and life skills that will put you in good stead for the future.

Acceptance is critical

Although the facts might be there in black and white that your project has indeed crashed and burned, it can often be difficult to come to terms with failure at first. Failure can be very much like grief, and in a way, they can share many common features such as anger and denial. The key, however, is to recognize this is part of the process, without allowing yourself to stay stuck in this phase. Without moving ahead to acceptance, you might never learn from the setback. In fact, you could repeat the same mistakes.

However, once you can accept what happened, it will put you in a better mindset to move forward and take remedial action from a place of being pragmatic and grounded, as opposed to being irrational or defensive.

Use failure as an opportunity for growth

How you deal with failure says a lot about you as a person, so use it as an opportunity for personal growth. Holding your hands up and accepting responsibility won’t make others perceive you as a weak link in the chain, it will actually show a strength of character that many people will respect.

Having the courage to investigate the reasons for failure and learn from them before moving forward is a trait that many high powered executives and CEOs have to master on their way to the top of the corporate ladder. Why not use this particular failure as a test run for exactly that as there are bound to be many highs and lows during your career journey?

Think through the Mistakes that Were Made

Once the initial shock and pain of failure has begun to subside and you’re feeling more comfortable and accepting of the fact that things haven’t quite turned out as planned, you can begin to identify and learn from mistakes made along the way.

To do this, brainstorm possible errors that led to your undesired outcome. For example:

  • Did you have clarity on the requirements of the project and what was expected of you?
  • Did you take adequate time to plan? Were the plans realistic in terms of budget , scope, and what it would take to execute?
  • Did you take time to socialize your ideas so that you would have the help and support of colleagues that you would need to be successful?
  • Were you open to others’ feedback along the way? Did you dismiss others’ concerns?
  • Did you manage your time adequately, or did the time constraints imposed by juggling other responsibilities at work and home get in the way of success?
  • At some point, did you realize you were in over your head, but were reluctant to ask for assistance or guidance?
  • Was there some developmental need you need to address (such as low emotional intelligence, arrogance, poor organization, or reluctance to hold others accountable) that prevented you from succeeding?
Focus on Your Role

Whatever the mistakes were that were made along the way were, it’s important that you don’t spend too much time trying to assign blame to others, regardless of whether or not they had a role to play in the downfall of your plans. Of course, if others contributed to the failure, you will acknowledge it, but realizing what happened is different from attempting to throw others under the bus.

For example, if someone dropped the ball, of course, it will be important to address that and hold him or her accountable. In addition, you might need take a closer look at the people surrounding you and reassess what you’ll do differently next time. Perhaps you’ll need to ensure that you’re clearer when you’re delegating. Or, you might need to include more of a time buffer when setting deadlines so that you can review work that is produced. It could also be the case that you’ll need to provide coaching where needed.

Still, if you spend too much time pointing fingers instead of aiming to solve the problem in a constructive fashion, it will likely have a negative impact on your working relationships. Plus, if you want to move forward in a positive way, it’s better to emphasize what you can do to grow from the experience, and own the ways in which you contributed to the failure.

Recognize that Some Degree of Failure is Inevitable

The most important thing to learn from failure is to never let it stop you.

While it can be natural to want to give up or shy away from all semblance of risk in the future, a better approach is to learn from your mistakes, and use those lessons the next time around.

If instead, you choose to give up, it may leave you feeling demotivated and lacking in value, and if you continue to let these feelings grow, you’ll never fully realize your true potential. What’s worse, you will always wonder what might have been had you just given your plans one more try.

As Trevor Noah wrote in his book Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (which I highly recommend, by the way), “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

If you have a strong belief in your goals and believe that you can make them happen, then you owe it to yourself to keep trying. Many high-ranking company directors and business owners had a vision that failed to come to fruition in the first few attempts, but with faith, perseverance and learning from past failures, they were eventually able to realize their dreams.

Use your experiences of failure to move forward into the future with greater wisdom and insight and, in time, your goals will become a reality.

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Atlanta-based Corporate Psychologist and Life Coach