How to Recover From a Failure

After a difficult experience or event someone will inevitably say “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Neitzsche, the famous philosopher who said it first may have been right, but failing at something still sucks. I’m not sure who said it first, but I’m also not a big fan of “When you fall off a horse, get right back on”. Really?  Maybe you should figure out why you fell of the horse in the first place.

We all get that failure can be a good thing, but in the moment, it always hurts. Recently a program I was running lost its funding and closed, I had to lay a bunch of good people off. I was leading it for 14 years and when it ended, I hit the ground hard.  I just wanted to lie in the dirt for a while and cry. Here are a few things I learned while lying there:

  1. Don’t blame anyone or make excuses. I could have done a lot of finger-pointing or play the victim, but I’m choosing to take ownership of my part of the outcome. I really like John Miller’s work around helping people take personal responsibility for their lives.
  2. Give yourself permission and time to grieve.  When you experience such a failure, it’s a loss, just like a death or divorce.  It is important to allow yourself time to go through the grieving process. Check out “The Grief Recovery Handbook : The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death Divorce, and Other Losses” by John James and Russel Friedman. They help you through the steps of gaining awareness of the grief, accepting the responsiblity for your part in it, identifying what has been unsaid and who you need to say it to, and moving beyond the loss and saying goodbye to the pain.
  3. Process what happened.  While it’s tempting to run away from a horrible experience, it’s necessary to remember that we can learn our greatest lessons through our greatest failures. These opportunities can be gifts for you to grow. Check out Amy Edmondson’s article in Harvard Business Review Strategies for Learning from Failure. She does a great job at showing the spectrum of failure and how to process it.
  4. Understand that not all failure is bad. It’s too early to tell what doors will open for me, but I have faith it will all be good. I love the Taoist story of an old farmer who had used an old horse to work his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.”Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

One outcome from my failure is that I was forced to take on new challenges that I would not have even considered before, including writing this blog. I will let you be the judge if that was a positive outcome J.

What lessons have you learned though failure?

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