The 6 Most Important Lessons of Failure

No matter how hard you work, how much opportunity you have had, or how promising things looked in the early stages, your ideas and goals can fail. Failure is only the end if you allow it to be, however.

The entrepreneurial world especially is filled with stories of major successes who overcame many rounds of failure before achieving their long-term goals. This phenomenon is so common that some have even referred to failure as a necessary ingredient — or step on the path to success.

Why Failure Is Important

How can failure be vital to success, when it feels so negative? For starters, the stigma of failure is a social creation, and not all cultures regard it this way.

We’re told when we’re young, by parents and teachers alike, that “failure” in any context is something we should feel bad about, because it’s highly undesirable. To some degree failure is indeed undesirable, but that doesn’t make it all black or white.

Failure is common, whether you like it or not, and learning to deal with failure, and learn from it, is the best way to avoid failures in the future … just as long as you know what to take away from the experience.

What to Derive From Failure

Simply failing won’t teach you anything. If you want to improve yourself and maximize your chances of eventual success, you need to walk away from an experience of failure with the following takeaways:

1. “Failure” is contextual. First, try to acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a catch-all “failure,” just as there’s no one standard for success. We tend to think of things like high position in a company, material wealth, or a certain type of lifestyle as being indicators of success, but they aren’t, necessarily. You have to define success — and by the same token, failure — for yourself, so your first task is to evaluate whether you judge an experience to have been an actual failure by your standards.

2. What you could help versus what you couldn’t. Take a moment to reflect on all the factors that may have contributed to your failure, and be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t blame any one person or thing. Instead, try to categorize the various factors into events and circumstances you couldn’t have helped and ones you could have (whether through action, inaction, manipulation, or avoidance). This will give some perspective to your failure; you’re at least partially responsible, but not everything was your fault. And that will help you sort out the most important factors in the experience.

3. What you can do better next time. If you’re committed to your goals, one failure isn’t going to stop you. You’re going to pick up the pieces and try again, possibly from a roughly similar angle.

If you do this, you need to take an objective look at all the things you could have done better, and figure out how you can do them better. As an example, billionaire tech genius Bill Gates actually started a tech company before Microsoft — a traffic pattern software program called Traf-O- Data — that failed miserably. Gates was able to document the failure points for the company (and the technology), and use them to guide him in his next venture.

4. How to set realistic expectations. Experiencing failure helps you recognize that failure is a real possibility, and that should help you think more conservatively in the future. For example, when investor Tim Sykes lost a third of his wealth in a company called Cygnus, he learned how devastating the consequences of a poor investment could be. Later, he narrowed his strategy to much more certain targets, yet kept the expectation of a reasonable chance of failure.

Confronting these potentials with more conservative bets should help you reduce your losses in the future.

5. How to cope. Dealing with failure is hard. Some people have tremendous difficulty working past it. If you want to keep moving forward, however, you have to know how to deal with failure.

Experiencing it early on can encourage you to identify the coping mechanisms, including basic emotional resilience, that you can use in future efforts to reduce your stress and help you stay focused over the long term.

6. Experience. There are few failure stories more inspirational than those of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc. Jobs created dozens of “failed” products, some of which were killed in the conceptual stage and others that were launched but failed to catch on with consumers. He was even fired from his own company, and started a new company that failed as well, before he eventually returned to Apple and built it into the powerhouse it is today. He learned, through trial and error, what people really wanted, and what they didn’t want. It was knowledge that couldn’t have been mastered in any other way than by failing, more than once, and he used it to build an empire.

With these takeaways, you’ll be able to understand your failure better, recognize its true value, and apply the lessons to your future work and goals.

There’s no guarantee you won’t fail again — in fact, chances are you could expect to fail many times before you finally realize your dreams, whatever they may be — but these strategies for handling and learning from failure will help you build the right mindset to get there.

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