Want to Succeed? Don’t be Afraid to Fail


Embrace Your Mistakes

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Sara Blakely, founder of the mega-successful, multibillion-dollar company Spanx, has never shied away from failure. In a recent CNBC interview, she recalled a dinnertime tradition where her father would ask her and her brother what they’d failed at that week. “The gift he was giving me is that failure is not trying. [It’s not] the outcome,” she says. “It’s really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life.” 

And she’s faced her share of disappointments: After tanking the LSAT twice, she tried out for the role of Goofy at Disney World, but was rejected for being too short. She then spent seven years selling fax machines door to door, until she dreamt up the immensely popular line of shapewear that changed how women dress. Getting the product into stores was an uphill battle, but one she ultimately won. Despite early setbacks, she never stopped striving.

Blakely’s story may be unique, but her perspective on failure isn’t. Almost every successful person has overcome failure at some point in her professional life. That’s because many of the same aspects that lead to major success — taking risks, not settling, going against the grain — can end, at least initially, in defeat or rejections. As FailCon, a conference devoted to the topic, urges participants: “Embrace Your Mistakes. Build Your Success.” Here’s how.

Seek out the Bright Side

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Julia Hu is the founder and CEO of Lark, a mobile and wireless technology platform that uses behavior change to coach people to feel great. In the fall of 2010, she launched the company’s debut product, a wristband alarm clock that connects to your phone and vibrates, noiselessly waking you up without disturbing the person sleeping beside you. Almost immediately afterward, she scored a meeting with one of San Francisco’s top venture capital firms.

The only snag? She didn’t have a prototype of the product, so she whipped up demos that weren’t actually synced with her phone. To her horror, in the middle of the meeting, all the demos started going off at the wrong time. Needless to say, she didn’t garner any capital. “It was the most traumatic VC meeting I’ve ever had,” Hu remembers. “Yet in a way I was glad that was my first meeting because I’d hit rock bottom, so there was nowhere to go but up.” She managed to transform her embarrassment into a motivating factor, rather than letting it hold her back. 

“There’s something liberating about failure and rebounding. When you succeed without first failing, you don’t appreciate what it took to get there,” says Guy Winch, PhD and author of “Emotional First-Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.” “But when something is tested and still manages to thrive, you have that much more faith in it and won’t take it for granted.”

How can you turn a hardship into a force of good? Research from the University of California Berkeley suggests that having self-compassion increases motivation, so give yourself a break and try to see the bright side of the setback.

Stop Making the Same Mistakes

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After using her own credit cards to loan her fledgling company money to create legitimate prototypes, Hu hit the venture capitalist circuit again. Still, even though the device didn’t break down, the meetings were rough. “I’d hear nos and criticisms all the time,” she says. “But I’m a big believer in being introspective.” She did a post-mortem after every unsuccessful pitch and eventually pinpointed a pattern. “Whenever something went wrong, whether it was a question I didn’t answer to the best of my ability or a harsh comment, instead of bouncing back and relishing the debate, I’d start feeling bad about myself and would downward spiral,” Hu says. “I felt like Alice in Wonderland, getting smaller and smaller.”

Once aware of her tendency to get thrown off course, she began working with an executive coach to build emotional resilience and hold her ground in the face of confrontation. Three years after that disastrous first meeting, Lark had raised $11 million.

 “People tend to make the same mistake repeatedly,” says Winch. “The key is figuring out what your typical blind spots are. Then you’ll be able to do something to prevent them.” Since it can be tricky to hone in on your own errors, “pretend that you’re a consultant being brought in to advise on a case, and your job is to identify the core problem,” Winch suggests. “This cognitive mind game can give you enough psychological distance to pick up on things you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.” For example, if you have time management issues, take a step back and act like a detective looking for clues. Are you underestimating how long projects will take? Do you have a habit of procrastinating until the last minute?

Keep Going

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Hu’s advice for entrepreneurs: “Fail fast and fail often. You do it in stages: You fail with the first step, course correct, then fail again, try a third time, fail again.” She explains that if you put an incomplete product out there and test it, then you can improve it at every stage. If you’re scared of criticism or wait to build what you perceive to be the perfect product, you’ll cling to ideas that might be off base. Same goes for relationships — most people have to get through some disastrous dates and heartbreak to find true love.

“While it was very embarrassing, I don’t regret launching the company without a real product and going to the VC too early,” says Hu. “By doing so, we were able to test our market and got positive feedback.” And thanks to her cumulative failures — and her ability to overcome them — Hu has gained a deep-seated confidence. “I don’t sweat the little things, and I can dust myself off pretty quickly,” she says.

In fact, according to a University of Colorado Denver study, organizations that fail spectacularly are more likely to flourish in the long run. They learn more from failing than from success, and retain that knowledge longer. Researchers surmise failing puts people in an open mindset that allows executives to come up with creative solutions.

Look for the Lessons

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In 2012, Miki Johnson, now a program manager at the digital marketing firm Union + Webster, co-founded Parsec.co, a social network for freelance creative professionals based around collaborative projects. Unfortunately, after nearly a year spent trying to get the startup off the ground, the team hadn’t gotten traction. They’d had to ask a co-founder to leave, had burned through their savings and several were relying on their parents for money. They agreed to take on part-time jobs to help support the business, and when Johnson realized she was way more excited about finding new work than she was about being CEO, she made the difficult decision to resign.

Still, she appreciates the experience. “I’m a fan of taking a healthy risk by doing things that are uncomfortable or dangerous because you learn much more in a very short period of time than you would over years of playing it safe,” explains Johnson. A study from the American Psychological Association found that children perform better in school and feel more confident if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs. So whether you blew a job interview or dropped out of marathon training, try to take it all in stride.

“The failure of the company taught me so much,” says Johnson. “Now I’m more careful about things. I plan more and think about how decisions I make will impact the next five years of my life, not just the upcoming year. I know that I don’t want to rely on my parents again. I’m choosier and say no a lot more. I’m much more honest with myself and I pay more attention to my gut reactions.”

Don’t Take It Personally

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After Parsec.co fizzled, Johnson had to learn not to take things to heart. “Just because something you try fails, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure,” she says.

To avoid ruminating over a fiasco, “substitute general statements like, ‘I failed,’ with a more accurate and specific one: ‘This startup didn’t get funding,’” says Winch. “Then focus on figuring out what you did well and what you need to improve.” Doing an assessment and setting out a plan of action helps you feel in control of the situation.

Another tip: Pack anything related to the disappointment into a box or envelope, be it promotional materials for the business that never got off the ground or pictures and cards from a relationship that went bust. A study from University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management discovered that this form of physical closure helped people achieve a sense of emotional closure and feel better about the negative experience.

Celebrate Each Successful Step

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One challenge in recovering from a failure is that the target you were pursuing can then seem more daunting than ever. In a Purdue University study, participants were asked to kick a football over a goalpost. Afterward, they were asked to estimate the distance and height of the goalpost. Those who failed at the task judged that it was farther away and smaller than successful kickers did. “Break your goal down into mini steps so that it feels more manageable,” says Winch. Instead of saying you want to lose 20 pounds, aim for a pound a week and come up with an actionable plan (committing to an hour of exercise a day, cutting out white flour and sugar) to achieve that.

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