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Recovering from Setbacks: 8 Practices For Managing Failure

No matter how much excellence you have achieved in your professional life, you have undoubtedly made mistakes and had failures or setbacks along the way. The reality is that no one perfectly manages every aspect of their career – no one. 

Consider, have you ever:

  • Not gotten a job or promotion you really wanted?
  • Had a project fail, finish late, or not go as well as you’d hoped?
  • Not been the one selected to work on a special assignment?
  • Been put in a “no win” situation that you were left to make the best of?
  • Made a career move that didn’t play out as you thought it might?
  • Had a mentor or sponsor in your company depart for another firm?
  • Done something at work that you later regretted?
  • Been let go or even fired?

In all likelihood, you answered “yes” to at least one of these questions, and there are certainly a litany of other ways to experience a professional setback. It’s essential to realize, though, that failure is a pathway to success, in line with the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Why Professionals are Recovering from Setbacks 

Even so, too many people underappreciate the important role failures, setbacks, and mistakes can play in fueling their success. However, more accomplished people – across a range of professions – practice a number of principles as it relates to success and failure:

  • They hold themselves (and others) to a high standard. They strive for perfection, even if they don’t necessarily expect perfection. On the contrary, they don’t accept mediocrity, and they don’t accept a lack of effort.
  • They plan, practice, and prepare. They try different approaches to see what works best. Doing these things dramatically increases their odds of success. As the sayings go, “Proper planning prevents poor performance” and “Practice makes perfect.” Even the great athletes and artists – think of a Tom Brady, a Yo-Yo Ma, or a Meryl Streep – continue to work on improving their craft. And they practice with purpose, focusing on accentuating their strengths, learning new skills, and improving their weak spots.
  • They push themselves out of their comfort zone. Fitness trainers like to say, “No pain, no gain.” This concept applies equally in professional settings, though hopefully without physical pain. Think of the situations where you have learned the most. These are likely to be when you did something with which you weren’t comfortable at first or something that was really challenging.
  • They take calculated risks. They don’t just play it safe. This doesn’t mean being reckless, but risk-taking is necessary if you want to improve. You won’t always succeed, but you will (hopefully) learn, adapt, and get better
  • They learn from their successes and their failures. They treat experiences – good or bad – as learning opportunities. They make learning safe for themselves and their colleagues. They use failure as fuel. They make a habit of continuous learning, asking themselves after any key work effort,

          o  What went well?

          o  What didn’t go well?

          o  What will I (or we) do differently next time?

  • They make amends when necessary. Sometimes our mistakes – whether in the form of our words or our actions – are hurtful to others. When these situations occur, it’s important to own the mistake and apologize for it. Truly take ownership for it – don’t deflect some of the blame to others or make excuses for it. And apologize in a sincere, heartfelt way –insecure or caveated apologies usually just make a bad situation worse.
  • They forgive themselves and others, and they move on. They remind themselves that setbacks, mistakes, and failures are a part of our humanity. They accept what has occurred, they let go of ill feelings, they don’t harbor grudges, and they allow themselves to move forward. Arguably, this is the most important element of managing failure. If you can’t move past your failures, you will have difficulty in moving on at all.
  • They live their values. They use their values as a behavioral compass to make sure they avoid the worst kinds of mistakes and failures, the ones from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. They maintain a sense of ethics, and they aren’t reckless. After all, it can take just one error in judgment to undo a lifetime of good acts.

If you practice these principles and embrace failure as a necessary pathway to success, you’ll experience more success in your life, day-to-day work, and career. Even in your darkest days, it pays to bear in mind this quote from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Recovering from setbacks is never impossible. 

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