The Road to Success, Paved with Failure

iStock_000006308877XSmallby Terry Selucky

Imagine you’ve dedicated 15 years to a company — working your way up days, nights, weekends — then you’re passed up for a promotion. What’s your next step?

Or what if, after landing a dream job, you are demoted within a year? Do you resign, or do you work through it, doing your best to find the next rung on the ladder?

In the first case, if you’re Vera Wang, you switch gears and leverage your network to shape a new career. After being passed up for the editor-in-chief position at Vogue, Ms. Wang is now one of the most successful designers and entrepreneurs in fashion.

And if you’re Oprah Winfrey and get moved from co-anchor of the evening news to making local announcements in the morning, you make the most of your new situation. You meet your best friend (in her case, Gayle King). You do your job well. You use your new skills to land a job as a morning talk show host. Then you become one of the richest women in the world.

Failing never feels good in the moment. Especially if you’re a natural overachiever and perfectionist, accustomed to winning, you may think it impossible to bounce back after things don’t go as you’d have hoped. Yet experts point out several benefits to failure, plus tips on how to pull yourself up and focus after a professional disappointment.

Failure is Good for You
In Psychology Today, Dr. Nigel Barber points out the advantages of knowing how to fail. He writes, “An untested employee is like an untried soldier”, remarking that people who fail repeatedly develop valuable persistence. Thomas Edison is said to have failed a thousand times before creating the incandescent light bulb. Similarly, Steve Jobs released a horde of defunct Apple products such as the overpriced Power Mac g4 Cube and the buggy new MobileMe. Yet few people remember the failures while they’re zooming through Apps on their iPads. “With success”, as Dr. Barber writes, “people keep on doing the same thing. When they fail, they are forced to adapt and change … [Failure] rewires the brain and gets the creative juices flowing.”

Learn to Learn from Your Mistakes
Of course, it takes training to transform the unexpected (and sometimes, humiliating) experience of failing into an “aha”. Confronted by the world, we interpret events not only by facts and senses, but also through environment and memory. Therefore, what we believe about the events in our lives certainly affects our realities.

Psychology professor and researcher, Dr. Carol Dweck, has spent years studying how personal beliefs affect our ability to learn from failure. She compared two groups of people — one with “entity” mindsets, who believe intelligence is fixed and based on a natural ability, against a group who prescribe to a “growth” mindset, who believe success is based on hard work and training. Dr. Dweck found that those who prescribe to an entity mindset are more likely to attribute failure to a personal shortcoming that cannot be remedied, leaving little or no room for improvement. Growth-mindset individuals have a more adaptive response. They learn from their mistakes, finding new and better solutions to problems. This is beneficial evolutionarily and in personal success.

Stay in the Driver’s Seat
Keeping a positive outlook, especially after a career misstep, may be easier said than done. Ekaterina Walter, marketer, speaker on leadership and contributor to Forbes, believes that our definitions of failure are shaped by three things: passion, purpose and attitude. These are the rudders to keep you going in the right direction, no matter what. With the fuel of passion and fearlessness that can come with true purpose, we create the kind of unstoppable attitude that will get you to your goal.

The most successful people in the world only got there through failing. Michael Jordan famously remarked: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my entire career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Next time you have trepidation about a project, and the looming fear of failure rears its head, invite it in. Don’t seek to fail, but instead seek to do your best, learn from every project, and if you fall, get back up. Your road to success will become clearer not despite your failures, but because of them.

1 Response

  1. I could not agree more.

    I am a lawyer, and have worked as a human resources professional my entire career. I chose HR as my career because I knew I would be great at it. However, my focus and the road to becoming an expert and an authority on HR has not been one paved with ease. I think for anyone who has a passion or ‘calling’ for their profession, setbacks only serve to spur them on.

    I totally agree with the authors position on passion, purpose and attitude. I have a passion for my work, and my purpose is to grow and enhance the profession into a strong business and revenue generator, and not merely a support discipline.

    In addition, my attitude to challenges is to continue forging ahead, learning, sharing and growing as a professional. Nothing that comes easily is usually worth it. I think of my education, degrees and professional achievements. It has not been easy, but I would not change the rigor or learning and the heft of experience gained from everything I have experienced and learned in my career.

    I think we get better when we face and overcome obstacles. The difference in winning and losing is most often…not quitting.” – Walt Disney.

    Thanks for this great piece!!