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How Failure Can Lead to Success and Growth

A work desk with an inspirational quote in the center.

Failure. It’s something we’ve all experienced. And whether or not we see the lesson in our failures immediately, in the long run, our professional failures can turn out to be just as important and influential as our successes. After all, so many great minds have also encountered famous failures resulting in some very well-known triumphs.

No matter where you are in your career journey, rather than just brushing failure aside, consider these techniques for tackling it—whatever the scale—to uncover new perspectives you can use for future wins.

Look failure in the face

It’s often easiest to avoid thinking about a professional letdown, focusing instead on moving past—ahem, forgetting—it. But the next time you feel discouraged about a career misstep or missed opportunity, consider really allowing yourself to confront what happened, head on.

Facing a failure doesn’t just mean wallowing or succumbing to self-doubt and negativity. Try keeping a failure resume or conducting failure meetings to help you get there. These are very intentional efforts to catalog instances where you fell short.

Maybe your team didn’t meet a fundraising goal or you failed to reach target numbers on a social media campaign. Consider gathering colleagues to review what happened and where things may have gone wrong.

To ensure that you avoid veering off into blame-game territory, try using the "feedback sandwich" technique that balances a criticism with two items of praise. Or you could take an approach that focuses less on compliments and more on giving direct feedback without assigning blame. Try this by framing critiques as questions and avoiding using the word “you.” So if you’re reviewing how your team arrived at a projected number goal for a campaign, instead of saying, “I think you need to revisit these numbers,” you could ask, “Would it be worthwhile to review the numbers?”

Using whichever feedback approach works for you in a failure meeting will help you step back and evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and to create a better plan next time.

Look for the small wins

Chances are, not all was lost in a project that went awry or didn’t pan out the way you expected. Along with pinpointing room for improvement with a failure resume or analyzing a failed project with a team, there’s something else you can do to help you make sense of what happened: hone in on what worked.

This is where a career journal may come in handy. For every three items that did not go according to plan, challenge yourself to think about three things that did go well and why, and then track it all in your journal.

For example, maybe you took on your first community-organizing project but the outcome did not match the goals. You could acknowledge that you did something completely new, made important connections, and now have the experience you need to lead a more successful effort next time.

While it’s hard to search for the silver lining in a disappointing professional situation, honing this skill will help you cope with future upsets, and we’re all bound to stumble from time to time!

What does success mean to you?

One of the most important things you can do for yourself is think honestly about what success really means to you.

It’s easy to get caught up in external expectations and the pressure of driving toward a firm goal. Of course it can be rewarding to achieve goals and exceed expectations, but pushing yourself to succeed for the sake of succeeding can lose meaning over time.

Instead, when you dare yourself to define and redefine what success means to you, you’ll help determine and ultimately achieve exactly what you want from your career.

So make sure you continue to think about and urge yourself to take steps forward without the fear of past or potential failure determining what success is—or isn’t.

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About the Author | Yoona Wagener is a freelance writer and WordPress developer who believes in the value of nonlinear career paths. She has experience in academic publishing, teaching English abroad, serving up customer support to software end users, writing online help documentation, and mission-driven nonprofit marketing and communications.

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