How to overcome failure

Your 3 step plan to get back in the game when things go wrong.

Failure is one of those career words that desperately needs a rebrand. The dictionary defines it as a lack of success but this is inaccurate on so many counts. The truth is that experiencing failure is often the most powerful moment in a career.

Go deep into any successful woman (or man’s!) work history and you will invariably find a career defining failure. Perhaps she didn’t get a much-desired job, but then went on to leave for something so much better. Or maybe the first version of her product was fatally flawed, but she was able to respond quickly to feedback and adapt it into something ground-breaking.

As an executive coach, I work with my clients to take them from a place where failures feel crippling to somewhere much more positive. The trick is to reframe failure into a learning opportunity through a very simple, three step process.

Step 1: Acknowledge the failure. Look it straight in the eyes and understand what went wrong. Ask: where were the errors and what could have been done differently?

Step 2: Find the success. In every failure, there will be flashes of success. No product is all wrong, no interview is all bad. Ask: what did I do well and what was positive in amongst the mistakes?

Step 3: Learn and move on. Failure is powerful because it’s a real life learning opportunity. There’s nothing theoretical about a failed product, for example. In fact, it’s a mine of valuable information about what customers really want. Ask: what can I learn from this experience and take forward for next time?

At first, this has to be done consciously. But we know that habits form quickly: in as little as 8 weeks. So consciously apply these questions each time something goes wrong and soon this powerful, positive approach to failure will be second nature.

Combine this with the knowledge that everyone fails: I challenge you, for example, to name an app that was successful in it’s first version or a leader who hasn’t at some stage made a huge mistake. When you normalise failure, suddenly learning and moving on feels so much more possible.

The path to success tends not to be linear, particularly for women. Very few of my clients are living the vision of success they had at the outset of their careers. Lives have shaped careers and events that at the time seemed to be failures (a redundancy, for example) have taken their careers in new and brilliant directions.

I’ve experienced that in my own career: I trained as a lawyer and a fund manager before requalifying as a coach. I can choose to see those years of training as wasted time, or I can acknowledge them as fundamental to my ability to coach now. We are all the product of our previous experience and if that experience has involved failure (whose hasn’t?), we are so much the richer for it. Failure is essential in crafting who we are – aside from teaching you how to improve, you also learn humility and are freed to take risks. And once you are comfortable with risk, there will be so many more possibilities.

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