Bouncing Back from Professional Failure

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.

In December, the world watched footballers have their hopes shattered, dreams dashed, and chances of glory snatched away, all on the most public of stages. The World Cup comes around only once every four years. It is the sport’s grand prize, the white whale for players, coaches, and fans alike. But for all but one team in the tournament, failure is inevitable. And though the stakes and the public nature of that failure may be unique to elite sportspeople, professional disappointments more generally are not.

Failure is one of life’s great levellers, crossing boundaries of nationality, class, gender, and identity, landing at everyone’s feet eventually, often many times over. The question, then, is not if we will fail, but how we will react when we inevitably do. For footballers, the course is already chartered. They left Qatar and returned to their domestic leagues, where they have had the chance to lick their wounds with a stellar back half of the season. These seasons will reset again in the summer, providing a blank new page on which they can start to write over the disappointment of this tournament’s already fading ink. Those of a ripe enough age will even have another chance at World Cup glory in four years’ time.

But what about those in other careers, whose path is less obvious, who don’t have clear markers or institutionally mandated resets? How can we use professional failure as a tool for learning, a way to grow resilience and add weapons to our arsenal, rather than letting it hold us back, dragging it around forever like a weight around the ankle?

Have you failed?

In his book In Praise of Failure: The Value of Overcoming Mistakes in Sports and in Life1, author Mark H. Anshel notes that, “We often misuse the word failure, especially in achievement settings.” In a work context, our idea of failure is more often based on our own internal expectations than anything tangible: the promotion we felt we deserved but didn’t get; the raise that wasn’t as substantial as we had hoped; the client feedback that wasn’t as glowing as we expected.

When assessing such moments, it’s important to have some perspective. It’s impossible to shake off our subjective lenses entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to step back and assess our situation with as much objectivity as we are capable of. Is what’s happened to us a genuine failure or simply a result of external life not living up to our internal narratives? Is what you’re experiencing truly a failure or simply a setback? Pursuing these questions, Anshel concludes that we often ascribe the term failure to undeserving events. “What is often called failure consists of not meeting goals or expectations, or not achieving perfection.”

Perfect is the enemy of good

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, has waged a war on perfectionism, seeing it as the enemy of creativity and productivity, not to mention satisfaction. “Nothing is less efficient than perfectionism,”2 she says. “Done is better than good.” When looking at your own professional disappointment, it’s worth asking yourself whether perfectionism is the true root of your perceived failure. Striving for excellence is all well and good, but perspective is vital. To function at any decent level consistently requires an understanding that all things cannot be well at all times, and that the moments in which we fall short of our own or others’ standards are opportunities for learning. Assess your supposed failures by fair standards, not those of your inner perfectionist, and see if it doesn’t give you some perspective.

But what if you have failed?

Sometimes, of course, we do fail. It’s not about perspective or overly high standards, we just actually made a mistake that had consequences or invested our time and energy in the wrong idea or project. Maybe we lost the company we work for money. Maybe we lost our own company money, or even worse, our company went under. Or maybe whatever company you work for decided they were better off without you and decided to let you go. Any of these things, it would be fair to say, are failures. They also happen all the time, to people at every axis of the talent and success spectrum. So how do we learn from them?

In an article3 in Forbes, sixteen leading businesspeople offered various solutions. The general consensus was that reflection, analysis, acceptance, and a willingness to move onto the next goal were of paramount importance. Chuck Hengel of Marketing Architects recommended, “sitting in the failure just long enough to learn from it.” Jason Van Camp from Mission Six Zero meanwhile advises, “Be willing to try, fail, and try again and again. Failure is fertilizer, and fertilizer is what you need to grow to your full potential…If you don’t have any regrets, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

These are wise words, but it can be easy to dismiss wise words when in a lull. They can seem too engineered, too Hallmark, helpful in the abstract but painfully inadequate in practice. Except, the numbers back them up.

Failing as a numbers game

In their book Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change4, Mary Lynn Pulley and Michael Wakefield observe that in a 1984 study on the “key events” that contributed to leaders’ development, 20% of respondents “said they learned significant lessons from hardship, such as job loss, career setbacks, mistakes and failures, or personal trauma.” When the experiment was repeated in the late 1990s, that number had risen to 34%. And the smart money would say that in the modern climate of intense self-reflection and analysis, the number will have skyrocketed even further.

Similarly, in a paper5 published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers conducted a study on what they termed ‘resilient serial entrepreneurs’, using the term to refer to workers who had undergone “past negative entrepreneurial experience” but chosen to re-enter into entrepreneurial activity all the same. They found that these entrepreneurs who had faced hard times, “benefit from enriched cognitive schemas leading them to greater export propensity.” Or, put more simply, they performed better within the international markets the research was conducted in than those who had not previously experienced such professional hardships.

Events within your control

Sometimes we may fail as a result of our own shortcomings, other times due to bad luck or timing. Sometimes, we may even fail because of circumstances totally out of our control, which no doubt leads us to feel especially hard done by. However, one must be extremely careful in assigning events as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of our control, as evidenced by a 2009 article7 in the Journal of Sports Sciences that found that people perform worse in scenarios where they feel the outcome is out of their control than they do when they feel they can have an impact.

A similar study6 was documented in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Researchers conducted an experiment in which one set of participants taking a test were told to try to succeed. The other set of participants was told to avoid failing. Unbeknownst to both sets, some of the questions in the test were unsolvable. The participants told to succeed cottoned onto this insolvability, or at least were so focused on getting answers right that they quickly gave up trying to answer questions that they felt they couldn’t manage, choosing instead to focus their attention on questions they could. The group told to try not to fail, however, “didn’t just get more riled and angrier, they hung in longer” on the impossible questions, leading them to fare worse overall. The researchers concluded, noting the irony, that, “the more people focused on not failing, the more likely they were to fail.”

Risk vs caution, post-failure

The fact that failure is made more likely by a belief that one will fail, or indeed even just that one might, could lead to someone who has experienced failure before taking less risks whenever it is they get back on the horse. But this is the wrong approach. If anything, those who have experienced failure should have a better gauge on their own limits than those who lack such experience, and thus should be prepared to push themselves to their known limits (a far easier and less precarious task than pushing oneself toward limits unknown).

Fear of failure, whether one has experienced it before or not, can only be detrimental. As Anshel notes, “The less we expose ourselves to risk, the greater the chance of failure because we will not grow, mature, develop our skills, and expand our physical, emotional, and mental capacity to stretch our limits and improve.”

Blank pages

Footballers have a clear, pre-defined reset button when they returned from Qatar. For the rest of us, the reset button is ours to press and the blank pages ours to fill. Scary as that prospect may be, if we approach the possibility of failure open-eyed, with a willingness to learn from its teachings, the benefits can be enormous.







6 Lench, Heather C. and Linda J. Levine, “Goals and Responses to Failures: Knowing When to Hold Them and When to Fold Them, “Motivation and Emotion (2008), 32, 127-140.