Failure Holds the Key to Success

Success means different things to different people, but one thing is for sure: nobody dreams of growing up to be a failure. Yet failure holds the key to success.

Think for a minute about the last thing you screwed up, no matter how small or how large a failure it was.

Really think about it for a minute. I’ll wait.

Now answer this question: What went wrong?

Your answer matters

Your answer to “what went wrong?” matters quite a bit. Not because of whatever it was that went wrong, but because of how you answer the question — and then what you do about it afterward.

Let’s take something that happens to many people as an example.

Suppose you get passed over for a promotion at work. You really wanted that promotion and the raise that went along with it. You thought you were ready for more responsibility. You thought you worked hard, and were the best person for the job.

But someone else got it.

Of course, it’s natural to be upset when you don’t see the success you wanted. But if you react by resenting the person who did get the job, or by complaining about how stupid the boss was to have overlooked your great qualities, you’re never going to get anywhere. The same is true if you blame outside factors like the economy or what people think about your age.

For best results, point at yourself

If you really want to succeed, you’ve got to look at yourself when you fail — and then make changes. “What went wrong?” is not a rhetorical question. It’s a way to find out how you can improve. Maybe a more palatable way to ask it would be “What can I do differently?”.

Because most of the time, it IS about you.

Don’t get me wrong, pointing at yourself doesn’t mean descending into a pit of despair about how much you suck and how you can never do anything right. It’s not about beating yourself up. It’s about being objective; about looking for the specific action items you could do that would get you the outcome you want next time. Or the time after that.

failure holds the key to successExamining failure holds the key to success

When you fail — and we all do, so there’s no if about it — be as honest with yourself as possible. Ask for outside input too, and then ask yourself what changes you need to make in order to succeed next time. And remember

They might be big changes (such as overcoming social anxiety) or they might be little changes (such as actually telling your boss you’re interested in being promoted). Most often, they’re a combination of things: daily little changes + a plan of attack.

It’s about seeing where you can change for the better, and where you can do things differently. And then following through daily to bring you to where you want to be long term — because it’s often the little things you do (or don’t do) every day that make the biggest difference.

You have a choice in how you look at a failure

Let’s continue with the example about being passed over for promotion at work. Here’s what missing the opportunity to turn failure into success would look like:

  • So and so is such a brown-noser; that’s why they go the job
  • Gah is my boss an idiot? How can they not see how perfect I would be for this job?
  • They don’t appreciate me.
  • I’m not going to bother any longer. Why should I put in this extra work when I end up with nothing to show for it?
  • They can’t afford to give anyone raises so they’re just promoting the people who are willing to work for peanuts.

And here’s what it would look like to sort through failure for the key to success:

  • What does so and so do that I don’t? How can I change?
  • What were they looking for that so and so has? How can I make sure they know I do have that, or how can I get it if I don’t?
  • I would be perfect for the job, but I must not be doing that great at making my good qualities and hard work visible. I’m going to go talk to my boss about how I can get on the track for promotion and where I can take on more responsibilities instead of sitting quietly in my cube assuming that hard work will speak for itself.
  • I’m going to try harder, and make sure that I’m working on the things that will really help by getting some outside perspective. I’m doing all this extra work and I’m darn well going to have something to show for it next time.
  • They’ve got the money for X; they’re surely willing to pay for outstanding work. I’m going to find out what I need to do differently so that I’m next in line for a raise. And if the answer truly is that no one is getting a raise, I’m going to either get a list of the criteria that would change that or look for a place to work that can afford to pay me what I’m worth.

Telling the difference between analysis and excuses

When we fail, it’s easy to make excuses to try to make ourselves feel better. But that’s not productive, because excuses only give you a reason to keep on doing what you have been doing without making any changes. You can’t expect the world to change. You have to look at the situation and adjust, which means you have to analyze it.

The easiest way to tell the difference between analysis and excuses is to think about how you feel at the end of your talk with yourself.

Do you feel angry or as if you’ve absolved yourself of blame? If so, you were making excuses.

Do you feel energized, and ready to take on a game plan? If so, then you’re ready to use that failure as a launching point for success.