Turn Failures Into Stepping Stones: 5 Ways
Failure can be extremely painful. Indeed, the "normal" psychological reaction to failure is to distract yourself and do something completely different right away.
But extremely-successful entrepreneurs typically defy this "normal" reaction. They go back and try again at things they fail at. That's because they often believe in something I call the "failure faith," a powerful conviction that every setback offers vital lessons that could not be learned any other way. Survey research for my book Business Brilliant shows that these highly-accomplished entrepreneurs rely on failure to tell them what they're good at.
So if failure is so important, how can you best embrace it? When you fail at something (a new product, a negotiation, or a recent hire), what's the best way to welcome it, and hear it out?
Here are five ways to cope with failure and turn it into one step along your journey to sizeable success:
1. Forgive yourself.
It may sound sappy, but it won't do you any good to torture yourself over what you should have known. The most unproductive thought in life is: "If I knew then what I know now." That's a fantasy. Put it out of your mind. Once you forgive yourself, in the words of Harvard professor Ellen Langer, you "create the freedom to discover meaning" in what you failed at. Langer likes to point out that minoxidil was a failed hypertension medication with the miserable side effect of unwanted hair growth. Researchers forgave themselves long enough to "find meaning" in the failure by developing Rogaine from it.
2. Talk it over.
Find a shoulder to cry on, but not just any shoulder. Tell your sorrows only to people who have the "failure faith." Most people don't want to talk about failure because they are ashamed of it, which is why you are unlikely to get helpful support and insights from people who aren't also successful entrepreneurs. That even includes close friends and family. The truth is that there are some things that only other entrepreneurs will understand. You might be better off talking over your setbacks and frustrations with any randomly chosen restaurant owner than your close friend who holds a corporate job.
3. Be honest about what really went wrong.
Once a deal or project falls apart, own up to what went wrong. Start all the way at the beginning. The acute failures that killed the project right at the end might have only been symptoms of chronic problems built into the project from the get-go. Maybe you were working with the wrong client, market, or developer. The real lesson might be about choosing customers and projects more carefully, not about details of the execution that went badly.
4. Take responsibility.
Don't rush to blame the client or the vendor. Maybe you didn't communicate your expectations properly from the start. Maybe you avoided asking difficult questions because you wanted to close the deal. Maybe you neglected to ask the customers what they really needed. Whatever you do, don't blame your partners or your team members. It's tempting to tell yourself that they need to be different next time. But you can't control them. Assume they will remain the same, and that you're the one who must learn and change if you want the next project to work out better.
5. Try, try, try again.
Get back at it right away. There are good reasons why your second attempt at anything is always stronger than your first. And as long as something's worth trying, isn't it worth trying more than once?
Remember, you're trying to succeed brilliantly at something most people can't do at all. You're taking roads paved with bumps, potholes, and occasional sinkholes. But what's the alternative? If the work were any easier, there wouldn't be any profit in it. So go out on a limb, every day, and sometimes the branch will break under you. But face it. You keep going out on that limb because that's where all the fruit is.
LEWIS SCHIFF is the executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council. His latest book is Business Brilliant: Surprising Lessons From the Greatest Self-Made Business Icons.
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