Let’s face it – failure isn’t fun. No matter how much we might try to believe the business gurus that encourage us to look at failures as opportunities to learn and grow, there’s no arguing with the fact that failing just plan sucks.
You start out enthusiastically – full of excitement at the prospect of success with a new project or startup. Over time, this initial excitement begins to fade, as time drags on and the possibility of failure begins to loom large in the future. Finally, there’s the heart-wrenching decision to call it quits, possibly with the added bonus of losing pride or money alongside the eventual collapse of your once-promising project. I know this pain firsthand, as I went through it when shutting down my second company, www.helpshare.com (much like www.quora.com circa 1998) in 2001.
Of course you can turn around and learn something from these failures – possibly even the lessons that will make you wildly successful in the future. But in the meantime, you’ve got to get from zero to hero by figuring out how to turn your past failures into successes. And instead of giving you the sugar-coated version about how life lessons spring forward from failures like so many butterflies and unicorns, here’s the real deal on how to cope with failure, based on my own experiences…
Step #1 – Give Yourself Time To Wallow
Is there anything more satisfying than a good, old fashioned pity party? The truth is, when we fail, we need time to come to terms with the unexpected end of a once-promising project. Think of it as the “5 stage of grief” for your project’s demise – in a way, you need to experience these sensations of denial, anger and depression before you’ll be able to turn your failure into a positive force in your life.
Obviously, I’m not encouraging anyone to wallow in failure forever. No one wants to be “that guy” at the party who’s still complaining about his failed efforts years down the road…
But while most business experts preach, “failing fast” and “failing often”, the reality is that there’s no set amount of time that’s appropriate for everyone to “get over” a failure. Larger failures will, obviously, require a larger amount of processing time to cope with, while certain personality types will be more likely to take failure personally (thus increasing the amount of time needed to move on).
Instead, keep an eye out for the point when thinking about your failure is no longer as painful as it once was – when you don’t break down into tears or fly into a rage at the thought of what could have been. As soon as you’ve reached that point, it’s time to start planning what to do next…
For me, this process took about 3 years, which I spent at Microsoft, rebuilding my confidence as well as my bank account – both of which are usually required after a big failure.
Step #2 – Determine Your Next Steps
Once you’re able to start thinking about your failure in objective terms, it’s time to start planning for the future. At this point, I’m not talking about learning grand lessons or uncovering hidden truths – simply taking the necessary actions that allow you to put your failure in the past and start thinking about the future.
For example, if you have inventory left over from a failed retail business, how can you expect to move forward when you’re constantly reminded of your failure by the boxes piled high in your garage? Instead of allowing these physical reminders to keep you trapped in your past, make arrangements to dispose of them in one way or another.
Similarly, if you borrowed money from friends or family members to fund your failed venture, make arrangements now for how you’ll handle these debts. Be upfront with these lenders about your financial situation and come up with a repayment plan that works for everyone involved, but don’t avoid the conversation. Doing so will leave you unable to move forward and get past your failure with integrity and character.
Often times, simply having these conversations actually helps you to feel better. In my case, most of my investors were really supportive of the effort we put into the company and appreciative of how hard we tried to make it a success – an attitude which helped me tremendously as I began to move on and look towards the future.
Step #3 – Identify New Opportunities That Resulted From Your Failure
After you’ve taken the time to process your failure and made arrangements to tie up any loose ends, you can then begin to pick apart your failed venture for any possible lessons to be learned.
In order to transform your failure into a future success, ask yourself the following questions:
1. What specific elements caused my venture to fail? Be realistic with yourself and accept that you share at least some of the blame for your failure. Pinning your loss on the faults of others – or on factors totally outside of your control – is one way to ensure you’ll never learn the lessons you need to move forward successfully.
2. What could I have done differently to make this a success? Your failure may not represent a total loss. Indeed, with a few tweaks, it’s entirely possible that your original idea can be reworked into a more successful format using the things you’ve learned from failing the first time. Keep in mind Thomas Edison’s repeated attempts at inventing the light bulb. It was only after a process of continuous failure, analysis and improvements that he was able to hit on a winning combination.
3. What did I learn about myself as a person that I can apply to future business deals? Your failure may not be the result of unfavorable business conditions or a bad idea – it could be that you put yourself in a position where your skills weren’t being used properly. In this case, use the failure as an opportunity to direct future decisions according to a path that makes more sense for your personality and skill set.
Failing isn’t fun, but it’s a process that every business owner must go through and respect. If you do find yourself smarting after a project or venture goes bad, take the necessary time to process your failure and create the mental space needed to move forward. Then, when you’re ready, you’ll be able to apply the things you’ve learned from these failed efforts in order to make your future projects even more successful.
Image: Alex Jarvis