Nobody is perfect.
Especially if you are aiming high and trying to accomplish great things, you are bound to fail. At least once. Probably more. Probably a lot more.
Because the more things you try to do, the more opportunities for failure there are. And often, the higher you aim, it feels like the farther you could fall.
Whether it’s a project that falls flat on its face or a bad review at work, none of us is immune to that terrible moment of realization:
- I really messed up
- That didn’t work
- I let ____ down
- I’m out $____ on that dream
That moment sucks. It is terrible, and it never stops being terrible. But it is what you do next that really matters.
Will it stop you? Or will you grow?
If you’ve recently gone through a failure and need help figuring out what to do next, here are our best steps on how to bounce back.
Don’t take it personally
Okay, this is easier said than done. After all, you failed most likely because of something you did or didn’t do; a choice you made or a way you handled something.
But just because you failed doesn’t mean you are a failure.
So the first thing to do is to stop feeling like it means something about YOU that you failed.
Everyone fails, whether it’s because of a bad decision, or a lack of experience, or outside circumstances that you didn’t predict. It doesn’t mean anything personal; it is a result of your actions. So stop looking at yourself, and start looking at what you did.
Failure always boils down to the same things: either not having the right information at the time, or not using the information in the right way.
Deciding that something failed because you’re an idiot or that you got a bad review because no one likes you is the worst way to handle a failure.
Why? Because it stops the conversation; it’s self-fulfilling. There’s nowhere to go if you’re just an idiot; you’ll never get better. So do you want to just accept that you’re an idiot who will never do anything in your life, or do you want to be rational and look simply at the actions that brought you to this place and how you could have done better?
Go over the process and analyze the steps you took
In other words, do a post-mortem. A post-mortem is a process that successful people and teams do to review a project and determine what went well and what went wrong, so that they can learn from their experience and do better next time.
Sit down when you’re ready, and take a look at the whole process from start to finish. Here are some questions to help you structure your review:
- What was the goal?
- How am I measuring the success/failure of this project? (eg. Money spent vs generated, deadline met, etc.)
- What went really well?
- What went as planned?
- What went really poorly?
- What didn’t go as planned?
- Did the plan make sense as a strategy for achieving the goal? Why or why not?
And then, most importantly:
- What did I learn from this that will impact future decisions/goals?
To answer some of these questions, you might need to seek outside data, either from your manager or your teammates or your customers. Getting feedback from others can be challenging, but it can also be extremely helpful in truly understanding the full scope of how a project succeeded or failed.
Listen carefully to negative feedback (and re-visit it later when it’s easier)
If you get a negative review from your manager, try really hard not to be defensive at first. Even if you think they are wrong in their opinion, their opinion alone is valuable information — because it shows you how you and your work are being perceived, whether or not it is accurate to how you believe things are.
A good strategy is to take notes during your meeting. Not only does it help you look engaged and serious, it also gives you a place to focus your energy (and/or frustration) so that you can keep your hands busy.
It’s also nice to have a written record of the conversation, since it can be hard to listen or absorb information when you’re getting negative feedback. This way, you can go back and look at it when your mind is clear, so you can look at the feedback objectively and pull out lessons.
Step away from the problem for a while if you need to
Sometimes stress can be overwhelming, and trying to push through it can actually be counterproductive. If you’re feeling too frustrated or sad to make real progress, take a step back and revisit the issue a day or week later.
You can’t ignore the problem forever — well, you can, but you’ll never improve if you do. However, taking a break and coming back when you’re less emotional can be much more productive than forcing yourself to fix everything right away. Take small steps until big ones feel easier.
Talk about it with someone who can help or relate
If you’ve dealt with a failure, it can help to talk to someone who has been there too. Who do you know and admire in your field? Reach out and talk to them about what you are going through.
Odds are, they have been through something similar. (Remember, everybody fails.)
Not only will it help to have someone who can relate to your pain and frustration, they will most likely have a perspective that can help you move forward. Maybe they can share with you how they got out of a similar situation, or have tips for your next attempt.
Look for someone who won’t just let you vent, but who will help you move forward and be constructive. The best thing you can do is become smarter and more prepared to be amazing in the future, as opposed to commiserating about the present.
Share how you will do better
This is particularly important if you’ve gotten a negative performance review, because you want to show your manager that you heard them and that you have a plan for how things will improve.
Think of it from their perspective: they didn’t give you a bad review to hurt your feelings. They did it to help you be better at your job, so showing them that you know what they meant is incredibly important to making them feel like you will be better.
Plus, going over the steps you plan to take to improve is an amazing opportunity to get feedback on your plan to make sure it will take you exactly where you want to go. Your manager may be able to help you tweak some ideas to be even more impactful.
(If they do, again, don’t take it personally! They are helping you be as amazing as possible. If you don’t agree with their strategy or understand how it will help, just ask questions! That is the best way to figure out what someone is thinking.)
Even if you are working solo or leading a team yourself, writing out or sharing the steps for how you will improve in the future means a lot for actually having those things happen.
Be accountable for what happened and be serious about how you’ll avoid it in the future.
Remember, this is a process
Stop worrying about being perfect, and accept failure as part of the process of becoming great. Reframe the issue. Make failure just another step you have to take on the path to your goals, like writing out a to-do list.
Because every time you fail, you have a chance to learn. And when you learn, you become smarter and more capable of becoming the amazing person you want to be.
Remove the pressure to be perfect, and instead, adopt an iterative, growth mindset. That way, no failure is just a failure — it is all part of the journey.