How to Succeed at Failing

It takes five positive interactions to negate one negative one. How to find a way to move forward in the face of failure and succeed in spite of it.

Published: Sep 18, 2019

Amelia was crushed. After she spent six months on an aggressive strategy to revitalize her firm's marquee newsletter, the higher-ups deemed the project a failure and decided to shelve it. The decision left her out of sorts; had she tried hard enough? Looked at all angles of approach? Compromised enough with other stakeholders? But even with the most crushing failures, there’s a way to succeed in the way you handle it.

At a time when we're working more than ever-the average American works 47 hours a week, almost a full day beyond the typical workweek-a huge failure at work can feel even harder to swallow. Part of that's because our brains are wired to react more strongly to negative news than to positive information, which explains why our failures are so hard to forget. One study found that it takes five positive interactions to negate one negative one, meaning that failures--if not properly handled--can take a toll on your self-esteem and your career advancement.

Failures often happen when people take risks--which is something many people don't even attempt.

But career pros say failing is crucial to the success of professionals-so much so that several years ago, Columbia University open a research center committed solely to understanding how to turn failure into success. "I look at failure as part of the process of growth," says Valerie Hayes, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. "If we're not willing to get out of our comfort zone and try something different, then we're not going to grow." Here are some tips on how to succeed at failing.

How to succeed at failing: Let yourself feel the flop.
Oftentimes, the hardest part about failing is dealing with the feelings that come with it. Some people feel embarrassed, while others get angry and want to place blame elsewhere. "Whatever you're feeling, own it," Hayes says. "You're not a robot."

Once you've had a chance to work through your emotions, you can then look at things more logically. Ask yourself if you made what you thought was the best decision based on the information you had at the time, or if you missed something or didn't consider what someone else said. These questions can help you succeed at failing by putting the flop in perspective and understanding how the outcome might or might not have been different.

How to succeed at failing: Squash the (negative) self-talk.
Failures often happen when people take risks--which is something many people don't even attempt. To succeed at failing, remind yourself that you took that chance, says Sean Carney, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. "The first part of confidence is recognizing what you've done, regardless of the outcome," he says. Doing this can also quiet the judgmental thoughts you may have, allowing you to step back and see what really happened without a cloud of self-loathing.

How to succeed at failing: Assess the damage and own it.
Once you've sorted through your emotions, you can begin to get a sense of the damage done. Is this something that can be salvaged? Did it hurt others? Or is it not worth it because you won't even care about it in a month or two? Repositioning the failure can help you get a sense of how big--or small--the mishap actually is. One tactic to succeed at failing is to take it to the extreme, because you often then find it's not as bad as you think. "If ‘I'll lose my job' is the worst thing, then tell yourself, ‘I'll find another one.'" Carney says. "To me, it's all about the relativity of a failure."

Another way to succeed at failing is to take responsibility for the failure and not try to shift the blame, even though researchers understand that's quite difficult for most people. That's because our subconscious brain can't reconcile the idea; as author Kathryn Schulz explains in her book Being Wrong: "The sentence ‘I am wrong' describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren't wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it." In other words, we can be wrong or we can know we're wrong, but not at the same time.

How to succeed at failing: Don't try to hide it. 
We often have a tendency to want to sweep failures under the rug. But if you don't share your failure with the people who need to know, then it can become a critical problem that balloons--and, in turn, brings more risk back to you. There's also the cultural factor to consider; growth-oriented companies tend to value open communication, particularly about failures, because it demonstrates good behavior for everyone else. "It makes it OK for other people to bring their own failures forward," Carney says. And the more flops there are, the more a company as a whole can learn from them—and taking away the lesson is the ultimate way to succeed at failing.

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