Professional Development

Facing failure: How to overcome and find success again

Written by Michael Hoon

Failing at something triggers a ton of different emotions: the shame spiral, mountains of self-doubt, and fear-induced projections far into the future. The nagging perfectionist within can often take a small failure and blow it up exponentially.

But while most of these perceptions are exaggerated in the moment, a setback can, in fact, have lasting effects on your future behavior. Whether these effects are positive or negative is up to you. Yes, the fear of failure can hold you back from future endeavors, like making a career move or taking risks in your job. But most successful people can take failure and turn it into opportunity. Mistakes are one of the primary ways that people learn. Dare I say, mistakes are good—and failure can be a powerful motivator that spurs on future success and keeps you moving forward, rather than holding you back.

Dissecting failure

You don’t want to internalize failure, let it define you, or wallow in any single setback too long. Still, oftentimes when you face failure you have to be able to take a step back and really dissect the factors that contributed to the event. We tend to assign fault to ourselves pretty easily, but this is really a time where you want to let logic take over.

Make a list of what factors were beyond your control. At work, there can be industry factors that lead to a bad string of luck, new competition, or a market downturn. But if a setback resulted from things that were in your control, what would you do differently?

Once you assess the factors that led to the failure, you’re ready to make a plan for next time. How can you better anticipate factors outside your control? (Sometimes you can’t.) What new approach would you take if you could redo everything? By planning to take practical measures over an extended period of time, you can set yourself up for future success in similar situations.

Defining failure

Sometimes, especially when factors are out of your control, you can’t prepare for a similar situation in the future. The only way to make it better is to build your resilience in overcoming a setback. How you respond to it and define it are equally important. A “failure” is often felt differently depending on your perspective. Walk through how you might perceive what happened if you heard the story from a friend or colleague. How would you reassure someone else that this setback wasn’t the end of the world?

Another way to approach the problem is to alter your perception of your mistakes. Were you expecting too much of yourself? Let’s say, for example, the setback was not landing a new job that you really wanted. Because there are many factors that lead to a hiring manager choosing Candidate X over Candidate Y, your success or failure in landing a job may not be determined by any of your actions. You should redefine this situation in a positive light. If you made it to the interview stage of the process, you were a strong candidate. That should count as a success. The ability to redefine the situation is an integral part of the process of building your resilience.

Defining goals

Another important response to any setback is to look to the future. If you’re not where you want to be right now, picture your dream job or what success looks like in your current job. Then, consider one small practical goal that can get you moving in that direction. The setback can be motivation to set your sights on your next goal—and your next goal should not be, “I want to avoid x.” You want to take a positive track and work toward something (rather than running away from something). This is an important distinction, as the goal you have in mind should not be defined by past failures (or a continual reminder thereof).

Defining fears

Lastly, the main thing to avoid after facing failure is to let the fear of future failure govern your behavior. Make a list of your fears. Sometimes fears can also be closely aligned with your goals. Sometimes, overcoming fear and running towards what scares you most can actually be your next goal, and can help you get on a path toward success.

The point of failure and the fear that surrounds it is actually to fuel the fire that moves you forward. Allow failure to motivate you to take actions that will ensure your future success.

About the author

Michael Hoon