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4 Tips to Make the Most of Failure

Don't waste your next failure--follow these steps to make sure you get the most you can out of the experience.

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Failure is the new black. We here at Inc.com write a lot about failure, mainly in a positive light: Embrace failure; fail fast and often; if you're not failing you're not trying hard enough. (This last one leads me to self-doubt, wondering if I'd be better off failing more often than I do.)

I have no quibble with the whole failure-is-good phenomenon, but failure is only beneficial if you learn something useful from it. So make sure you get your money's worth next time things go wrong by following these four steps:

1. Call it what it is.

Some failures are completely obvious, as when 63-year-old Diana Nyad couldn't swim from Miami to Cuba on her fourth attempt in 30 years--or when I was fired from my job as a business reporter on a daily newspaper. But other failures are harder to pinpoint, especially in a culture where spin is the norm.

If that hot new product you launched languishes unsold, do you officially declare it a failure? Do you plan a new promotional campaign, reasoning that once customers get to know the product they'll love it after all? Or maybe you simply move it lower on your home page and leave it at that?

Whichever course you choose, you'll help yourself and your employees if you openly acknowledge that at least the initial launch has failed. Chances are they already know. Giving everyone permission to talk about a failure as such means that learning can begin.

2. Give it its emotional due.

You know all those movie scenes in which a woman who's broken up with her boyfriend is seen in a bubble bath with a pint of Ben & Jerry's? That should be you when failure strikes. Pamper yourself, vent to your family and friends, take your staff out to the nearest bar and indulge in a pity party. You can't truly get to the benefit of failing until you get this step out of the way.

3. Ask what went wrong.

This is tricky, because it may sound--especially to those who work for you--like you're trying to assign blame. You're not, and you need to make that very clear. You simply want to know why the endeavor failed, so you can either do better next time around or choose a different direction.

In my case, I realized that I lacked the right experience and training to be a daily newspaper reporter. I'd written for a variety of magazines, both on staff and as a freelancer, and I was able to turn out copy quickly enough to meet daily newspaper deadlines. But there's more to being a newspaper reporter than turning in stories, and I failed to become part of the local community or the paper itself. I didn't really want to be.

I had taken the job because the offer came out of the blue at a time when my writing career was in the doldrums. I was curious, and tempted by the whole Brenda Starr thing. But I found myself sitting in an open newsroom surrounded by other working people and having to follow a schedule that didn't make sense to me. It wasn't as much fun as I'd hoped. After I got fired, I spent a lot of time pondering my writing career and where I wanted it to go. The following year, I published my first book.

4. Use what you've learned.

The real payoff from failure comes when you take the lessons you've learned and use them for whatever you do next. Besides finding out that I am happier when self-employed, I also picked up a few handy skills that I still use, such as the ability to walk up to people in public places and ask for interviews on the spot.

What lessons did you learn from your most recent failure? And how will you apply them to the rest of your life?

IMAGE: Flickr/Christophe Verdier
Last updated: Sep 5, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
@MindaZetlin




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