Early Career

Fail Upwards

It’s the only way you’ll learn sometimes – by falling flat on your face.

What the truly successful understand is that failure is actually the key to success. Like two sides of the same coin, they are inseparable and intimately linked.

This is why recruiters ask about failures, mistakes, challenges, and setbacks. They know that if you want to predict a person’s capacity for success, you need only watch what happens when he or she fails. Because if you aren’t failing, you aren’t living life right – you aren’t trying hard enough.

People who achieve big outcomes take big risks, they try new things, and they pick themselves up and do it again when it doesn’t go their way. Want to be a leader? Want to make a difference in the world? Want to have a stellar career? It’s going to take a lot of failure.

We tend to hate failure because we don’t put it in the right perspective. We often internalize our shortcomings, deeming ourselves the failure, rather than recognizing that we simply fell short of our own objectives. When cast in the correct light, you can see that failure is no enemy; it is your greatest teacher.

Just think about all the things you failed to do today already. Here are a few from my day, and it is only 2pm:

  • I failed to get up the first time my alarm went off and hit snooze 3 times.
  • I failed to achieve the full downward dog I have been working on for many weeks — my knees are still bent.
  • I failed to eat an appropriate breakfast and instead stuffed some cheese and crackers down my gullet at 9:30am, one hour late.
  • I failed to complete an article I had planned to finish today, so I will need to revisit it tomorrow.
  • I failed to get all the prep work done for my 1:30pm call, requiring me to postpone it.
  • I failed to check more than three of the 10 things off my to-do-wish-list today. But fortunately, I still have time. Ha!

Has the constant repetition of the word failure in this article caused the concept to begin losing its grip on you? If so, good. Because confronting setbacks and disappointments honestly and without judgment is what allows us to learn. It enables better choices. Some lessons from my failure of one morning:

  • Have better breakfast food in the fridge.
  • Consider scheduling two sessions to work on key articles. All good writing is essentially rewriting, after all.
  • Be sure to get big preparation tasks out of the way earlier in the day.
  • Remember to-do lists never get done.
  • And don’t give up on that pesky downward dog.

Just as importantly, assessing these failures objectively allows me to let them go and acknowledge more fully the successes of the day (Hour long walk? Check. Finished 6 shorter articles? Check. Three excellent client calls? Check. Coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in two months? Check.)

As you begin to evaluate your experiences with self-honesty and non-judgment, you will be surprised at the powerful and yet immediately actionable lessons they hold. This is true of the trivial failures from my day, but it is also true of those big, hairy, embarrassing, potentially career-limiting failures most of us have experienced. Every one holds an invaluable lesson that will lead you to greater success.

The next step in embracing failure and using it to its fullest potential to forward your career is to learn how to talk about it. Please join me at this year’s Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference as we turn Lemons into Lemonade and convert your most frustrating failures into the best stories you will ever get to tell in an interview.

And if you are interested in maximizing positive impact, career success, and joy, you have to check out my blog and join my Insider’s List.

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