Can you recall a moment when you failed? Missed a target? Were turned down?

Our failures aren't typically memories we like to recall, much less dissect. While you'll be hard-pressed to find a leader who hasn't once faced rejection or complete failure, you will find endless stories of successful individuals who've admitted failing and then rising from the ashes to come out stronger than ever before.

But, how do successful leaders operate every day, despite their fear of failure?

Maybe it's because they know that failure has the power to teach us life's most important lessons. I've been thinking about this ever since talking with Alex Mashinsky--an eight-time founder who raised a total of $1 billion in funding and generated $3 billion in exits--on Unmessable, a podcast I host.

Mashinsky, who now leads Celsius Network, told me about a particularly painful lesson he learned. In 2009, venture capital firm Benchmark was in the process of deciding to back either Mashinsky's company GroundLink or Uber.

The firm chose Uber, which was a crushing blow for Mashinsky. It nearly sent him into a clinical depression. While he could have let this setback break him, and it almost did, he used it as fuel.

I also know the crushing blow of failure. I've failed to raise capital. I've had to fire 70 percent of my team in one afternoon. I've spent months and tons of money on launching a new feature that didn't achieve product-market fit. It's brutal. But major life failures are only failures if we fail to learn from them.

Try using these four questions to extract every bit of learning you can:

1. What's fact versus interpretation?

Before you can surface any learnings, you have to accept what really went down. This question helps me separate the pain from the failure. It untangles my feelings of being a failure from simply having the initiative fail.

For example: When Mashinsky got the devastating blow that funding was going to Uber, it crushed him. He says he had to separate the facts of what happened from his version of the past to neutralize his feelings and regain emotional balance.

One way to un-collapse the two is remove the subjectiveness in your thinking. For instance, we failed because we weren't good enough (interpretation) versus we failed (fact).

2. Who was I in the face of this challenge?

Everything begins with your mindset. How you perceive situations will drive your actions, which will produce a set of outcomes.

Being aware of your mindset at the time of failure yields a powerful lesson. Were you championing for the team? Did you take full ownership? Or did you secretly give up before it was over? 

Most people aren't usually aware of their mindsets. Rather, it's simply there in the background--a context upon which you operate.

Once you have awareness of your default mindset, you will have the power to choose a mindset that best serves you. In the absence of awareness, you don't have a choice.

3. Do I forgive myself and others?

Failure is a hard pill to swallow. The first place people go is blame. Blame yourself and others for what happened. Then, being a victim.

All that nonsense won't make a bit of difference. It won't change what happened and it certainly won't help you learn. So the best way to close the chapter is to forgive yourself. Then, forgive others. Forgiveness will not only release the heavy emotional load you carry but will allow you to restore key relationships that might have been damaged.

This particular exercise helped me repair my relationship with a co-founder in a pivotal moment in our business: We were running out of money and had a fundamental disagreement over our preferred course of action. My co-founder left the company, which was not in the plans.

After several discussions to help understand each one's point of view, we eventually forgave each other. That was crucial. Today, this person remains a close friend.

4. How will I prepare for what's to come?

You tried, and you failed. So what?

Ever hear that saying what doesn't kill you makes you stronger? Now you can go forward with intention. I've learned that failure is only a defeat if you don't learn from it to create something even better.

After you fail, everything around you tells you that you are a failure and you cannot make it. No one believes in you or wants to back you when you are down. That's precisely the moment when you have an advantage over all the other people who have never experienced the lonely and miserable place called "failure."

The few of you who can get up, dust it off, and climb to new heights know that failure is what makes success possible.

Published on: Jul 18, 2019
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