How to Turn Failure into Future Success

Posted by Bob Corlett on July 18, 2012

We often hear about the necessity of failure: “If you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough,” “You learn from your failures,” and “Don’t trust people who say they don’t fail.”

So what is the purpose of failure? asks Lynn Parker, writing for the Puget Sound Business Journal. How can you learn from failure, instead of being wounded by it?  She offers four ways to transform setbacks into benefits:

1. Use setbacks to recalibrate. Sometimes failure is the universe’s way of sending you a message. Such as “go with your strengths.” Or “the market has changed.” Or “you’re chasing the wrong vision.” Listen to what the universe is telling you, and course correct. This doesn’t mean using every setback as a reason to change direction and zig-zag through life, but it’s good to watch and be mindful of the trend, and try to stay ahead of it.

2. Use them to practice self-forgiveness. I once facilitated a workshop that turned into a train wreck. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences in my professional life. I sat in my car afterward, feeling ashamed and miserable. So I started with some positive self-talk: “Someday you’ll laugh about this; the pain will eventually recede.” Then I called my partners and told them about it, because honesty is the first step on the path out of shame. Then I spent some time contemplating forgiving myself. Not an easy task, but the right one.

3. Use them to train others. Mistakes are the fastest way to learn, because the pain is so memorable and you want to avoid the same pain in the future. Other people’s mistakes are a less painful way to learn. So make sure your team looks at failure in the face, shares failures with others, and identifies the lessons learned. Debriefings are good, as long as they don’t include blame.  At my organization, we welcome mistakes, as long as they are new ones!

4. Use them to embrace your humanity and lack of control. Managerslove control, and love the belief that they control everything. Yet the reality of our life is that we don’t have total control, and it’s part of the human condition to fail. Embrace the fact that we all have faults, make mistakes, and sometimes fail. It’s part of the whole package.

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