The time has come to talk about the “F” word. (No, not that “F” word.) Failure. No matter who you are or what you do, that word usually has the power to strike fear. If you suspect you’re already failing in your life (for example, you’re not where you thought you would be at this point, or you’ve experienced setbacks), that can be incredibly intimidating. It may keep you from shaking off bad habits and picking up new ones that would get you in a better place. This is especially true in your career. It can be super easy to fall into an inertia bubble and then find yourself shrugging helplessly when you know it’s time to get out.
Let’s look at some of the reasons you might think you’re failing at your professional life, and what you can do about them.
1. You feel helpless to make changes.
This is one I struggle with all. the. time. You may not think you’re helpless per se, but maybe you just feel overwhelmed by daily minutiae, and you feel like staying afloat is all you can accomplish. If you’re managing only what comes your way, you’re troubleshooting rather than improving.
What to do about it: Realize that you do have a say in your daily life, even at work where things might seem very regimented or non-negotiable. If you want to take more agency and control in your life, it starts with you. Learn to advocate for yourself, and negotiate what you want. You’d be surprised at what you can get if you learn to ask for it in the right way.
2. You’re too busy blaming other people.
I’d be much further along if Susan weren’t getting all the attention and good projects at work. I’d be making more money if Frank paid more attention to what I’m doing. I’d have a better job if it weren’t for my cat/my parents/my therapist.
What to do about it: You do you. Your career is yours, and yours alone. This means that ultimately, your decisions are your responsibility—not your cat’s, your parents’, or your therapist’s. It’s time to stop blaming, and instead start thinking about what it would take for you to get what you want: that raise, the good projects, the job you want. Blaming others takes up a lot of mental energy, which you should instead be using to do an internal audit of why things aren’t working out the way you want—and what steps you can take to make progress.
3. You’re settling for a mediocre status quo.
This is an especially insidious kind of failure. You’re comfortable enough, have a job that pays your bills, but you’re not really going anywhere. It’s settling for the good-enough-right-now, at the expense of what is good for you in the future.
What to do about it: Do things that scare you a little (within reason). You don’t have to go busting every piece of your status quo right now, but if you start by doing one thing every week that is outside your comfort zone, you’ll likely find that “status quo” expanding around you. Take on a project that is a bit of a stretch. Take a class in a new skill. Apply for that reach job. If you find yourself hesitating, ask yourself why, and what you have to lose if you go for it. And if the answer isn’t “it’s physically dangerous” or “this will cause a divorce,” then consider moving forward with it after all.
4. You don’t have the resources or education.
If you avoid applying for jobs because you don’t have the necessary skills, experience, or education, that feeling of failure may creep in while you’re browsing job openings. It’s hard not to feel like a failure if all you can see are closed doors.
What to do about it: Take a class! Going for a new degree (or completing an old one) just may not be feasible for everyone, but there are often ways to get around the traditional “going back to school” model. For skill-building, sites like Lynda.com offer free or relatively inexpensive courses you can take on your own time. There are also many universities and colleges that offer part-time degree programs, or non-degree courses online. There are so many ways to stay academically active and keep learning, even when time or money is tight.
5. You’re avoiding hard truths.
Facing reality is hard. That’s why we have 8 million things to distract our attention at any given time. Cat videos, TV, social media—we all have ways of decompressing and avoiding reality for a while. Those are all temporary, though. Ultimately you’ll have to think about new and different ways of doing things, or facts that make you uncomfortable. If you’ve been avoiding thinking about your professional future because it might lead to uncomfortable realizations about the choices you’ve made and the ones you will need to make in the future, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
What to do about it: Time for a little self-audit. Where are you in your career, what’s keeping you in it, and where do you want to be in five years? This is an exercise just for you—no one else will see or judge, so it’s important to be extremely honest about what you have, and what you want.
6. You think you’re too old to make changes.
We often pick our career paths pretty early in life, based on what we want to study in college, or what we think we’d be good at doing when we’re 18. And think about it: how well do many of the life decisions you made when you were 18 still hold up? How many of your hobbies and interests are the same? You’re not locked into a career that you chose because it seemed like a good idea at the time. As you change, you’re never too old to change your professional path.
What to do about it: If you feel stuck in a path that doesn’t interest you anymore, think about making a change—no matter how significant. Think about what it is you want to be doing, and start doing real research into what it would take—like education, certification, or skills. These are all things you can work on in the meantime, before you make any big moves.
7. Your fear of failure has you pinned down.
Failing because you fear failure? Is that a thing? Yes, yes it is. It’s possible to back right into failure while you’re on guard against it, avoiding risky changes or proactive steps that could result in failing. This kind of failure is sneaky, because it comes right from the place you thought you were watching.
What to do about it: Don’t be afraid to be bad at something, or to make a bad decision once in a while. Failure can actually be one of the great learning experiences, painful though it may feel in the meantime. By letting fear of failure paralyze you, it can kill your career progress. Your professional life thrives on both your successes and your failures.
8. You’re overestimating your abilities.
Full disclosure: I’m failing at being a ballet dancer. This is because I am the biggest klutz ever, I don’t have the right body type, and…oh yeah…I have very few ballet skills. So Misty Copeland’s title is probably safe. But if I expected to be a ballet dancer at this point in my career, I’d be making a fatal assumption that I could be one in my current state. It’s one thing to be confident in the abilities you have, but another thing entirely to be confident that you’ll be good at something without the education or skills to back it up. This kind of mindset lets you get comfortable in the idea that you don’t need to learn or do new things, because you’re the best the way you are.
What to do about it: Embrace your strengths, work on your weaknesses, and accept the need to be realistic about what you can do.
9. You’re not setting realistic goals.
If you’re not planning your career in a realistic way, of course you’re going to feel like a failure—you set it up that way yourself. Going from entry level to CEO in two years was never going to happen.
What to do about it: Time to set up some SMART goals. That’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based. Setting these career goals both in the short-term (say, for the next year) and the long-term (five years or beyond) will help you make progress that you can quantify. There are lots of apps and tools you can use to help you, but don’t underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned checklist, and the smug, well-earned sense of satisfaction you get as you check something off the list.
If you feel like you’re failing, it’s never too late to stop, figure out why, and start taking concrete steps out of the muck. Understanding why you’re failing is the most important first step you can take.