Failure; a universal disappointment but also acknowledged as one of the fastest ways to learn and a reliable indicator of future success. In fact, the odds of a successful start-up actually increase among entrepreneurs who’ve failed at least once before. So why are we all still so afraid of it?
Failure is tricky to navigate successfully - heightened emotions and the risk to our personal and financial investment (not to mention reputation), play a huge role in our interpretation of what’s happening and our ability to make the most of it. If we’re able to stay above the emotional turbulence, failure is a valuable opportunity to learn, grow and strengthen relationships, laying the groundwork for future success.
Here are some tools to help you be a winner while you fail.
Failure will give you as many lessons as you’re willing to learn, so use the opportunity to look critically at what you’ve done and why it didn’t work. Think of it like a crash course in Business 101.
Learning critically isn’t a solo affair, you can’t expect to understand the reasons for your failure through the filter of your own experience. Albert Einstein (who failed thousands of times and was proud of it) said that "no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Your brain will only be able to interpret and evaluate your failure one way, leaving countless learnings and opportunities on the table.
Leverage your employees, customer-base and key stakeholders for 360 degree feedback and analysis to give you a broader context about where things went wrong.
As much as it can feel like it, failure is never a solo affair. The collapse of anything from a new business to a college football team is a high-stress experience for everyone involved. The circle of people involved are all experiencing their own uncomfortable emotions, ranging from sadness and frustration to guilt or defensiveness. How your respond to both the circumstances and those involved in them will play a huge role in your path forward, no matter which direction you go.
The first rule of failing gracefully is to own it. Resist the temptation to spread blame around, find fault, or attribute any part of it. Don’t let it land on other people, even if they might have played some part in bringing it about. If you’re the CEO, the founder, the leader, then ultimately, the fault (if you need to call it that) is yours. Owning your failure affords you the ability to control the experience for both yourself and others, and the respect of your team. Taking ownership will show everyone involved that you stand behind their efforts, are proud of what was accomplished and are confident you’ll find a road forward.
Secondly, remember just because it’s the end of this road, it’s not the last time your paths will cross. How you treat this ending will be what people remember about the whole experience, so make sure it’s positive. Be the kind of person you want them to remember, and when you’re ready to get back on the horse, they’re more likely to be there to give you a leg up.
Never make the same mistake twice
Richard Branson says "never make the same mistake twice". Einstein goes even further, defining insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Either way, the consensus is clear; making a mistake is a lesson learned. Making the same mistake twice is just being lazy.
If you do find yourself in a rewind and repeat cycle, stumbling over problems you’ve faced before, take some time to really look at your patterns of response. Are you learning from your mistakes? Are you even seeing them? The best time to learn from failure is when you’re not in the middle of it - leaving you clearer, less emotional and more able to identify where things went sideways. Take an objective look for common problems and find the responses that contributed to their recurrence. By learning critically and knowing when to call it quits, chances are good you’ll be more successful the next time around.
Know when to quit
W.C. Fields sums it up quite nicely: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it."
While most entrepreneurs will face multiple failures (three or more, on average) before they get a business of the ground, there’s a difference between smart perseverance and relentless repetition. Perseverance for its own sake can be time-consuming, expensive and exhausting, not to mention a complete waste of time. To avoid what we call futile failure, look carefully for the point where spending any more time, money or resources becomes simply redundant. Once you stop investing in what’s not working, you can start diverting those resources to something that might.
Stay positive and don’t take it personally
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t be discouraged. There are thousands of examples of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs failing - over and over again. Henry Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and on and on. In fact, perhaps the only truly common trait among the world’s greatest visionaries is failure. The reasons something succeeds or fails is based on so many factors, some of which are so far outside your control that it’s almost impossible to take it personally. Failure is just information. Use it, learn from it and be grateful for it. That’s your first step.
Now go ahead and take the next one.