So You Failed. Now What?

Confront your failures. But don’t join the cult of failure.

You just read your hundredth rejection letter and burst into baby tears. Thank god nobody was watching. You’re such an ugly crier. Yet another thing you suck at.

You need to practice your crying, girl. Or dude.

Who hasn’t heard that voice in their head? When you’ve lost your fifth job interview. Watched another promotion sail by. Got dumped, again. Suddenly all those mantras about failure don’t make you feel so great anymore. You know how to fail. You’re good at that.

An entire industry romanticizes failure now. They’ve formed a cult of failure, and they want you to join for $29.95. They’ll give you a badge for each time you screw up.

Yeah, failure happens. It comes before success. But we have to do more than fail. We have to figure out why.

That’s hard. And no single answer usually exists. But you have to prod yourself and your approach.

Lesson 1. Make sure you’re doing what you want.

Once upon a time, I tried to write a fantasy novel. Just one problem. Although I like a handful of fantasy writers, it’s not my genre. So I was kidding myself the whole time.

Everyone told me the prose was good. But there was no story. No kick. No sense of adventure. Just a bunch of cool scenes strung together. Finally, the truth landed. My own novel bored me. So I quit writing it.

I’m grateful I did. So many people never give up and move on. You have to realize when to cut your losses.

Lesson 2. Stop trying to replicate a past success.

If only you could perform exactly the way you did last week. Or make a video just like the one that went viral a month ago. Nothing kills creativity and spontaneity like trying to repeat yourself.

Sure, habits form. So do best practices. But you have to let yourself experiment and try new things. If you keep trying to do what worked once, you’re not actually growing. You’re not adapting to new contexts. What worked once is bound to fail at some point.

Lesson 3. Stop rushing to the finish line.

This problem befalls almost everyone. We’re so desperate for affirmation, we speed through our work. We can’t wait to show everyone what we’re capable of. But that lights a paradox.

Everything comes with its own timeline. One project might take a few hours, others a few months. Whatever you’re doing, obey the pace. If you listen to yourself, you’ll know when you’re rushing.

Lesson 4. Stop tweaking things to death.

Just one more draft. One more brush stroke. Let’s add another sound effect to that podcast. If you love something too much, you’re afraid to send it out into the world. So you keep refining.

Suddenly, the original inspiration has sunk down to the bottom. Nobody can see or hear it anymore. You’ve buried your message. Sometimes you have to leave rough and raw alone. Your work always improves over time, but each effort can only survive so much polishing and fine-tuning.

Lesson 5. Stop trying to show off.

This mistake kills anyone on the job market. You start thinking about how to impress the search committee. Instead of presenting your best self, you debut an alternate version you think they want to see.

You try to make yourself an expert in something you only know a little about. Meanwhile, you downplay your actual strengths. You keep your real expertise hidden. Because you didn’t value it enough.

Lesson 6. Try not to psyche yourself out.

This one’s something I learned from playing cello in high school. We put huge amounts of pressure on ourselves before any kind of performance. We can’t just do well enough. We need things to be perfect.

We try to quantify success, as the complete absence of mistakes. We’ll hit every note, we think. We won’t miss a single cue.

And when the first little thing goes wrong, we lose our shit. Odds are, nobody noticed. But we did. So we immediately start stressing about the next mistake. Then the next. And the next.

Lesson 7. Start visualizing failure.

Everyone tells you to visualize your success. Sure, it can’t hurt. But maybe think about visualizing failures, too. Run through the things that could go wrong during any kind of performance.

You name it, and I’ve probably blown it. Lost an important file before a research presentation. Scrambled my train of thought during an interview. Stuttered at a crucial moment. Fumbled a key question. Accidentally insulted someone at a fancy dinner.

But enough about me…

Anticipate mistakes. Think about how you’ll recover. It’s practical, and it might even help you calm the hell down.

Lesson 8. Forgive yourself in advance.

You’re going to screw up. And it might cost you a job. Or a publication. It’s fine. Every failure comes with a small lesson for next time.

As a teacher, I’ve been blessed with a thousand chances to fail. Teachers screw something up almost every day. We do post-game analysis and figure out what to fix. Then we run the play again.

Look at me using sports metaphors. Did I get it right?

Lesson 9. See everything as an experiment.

Sometimes the universe just pisses on you. But usually, failures happen for a reason. You broke the wrong rule. Didn’t follow the right principle. Missed a small opportunity somewhere.

So stand up and try again. But take a pause first. Use your failure as moment to analyze and reflect a little.

Certain people complain a lot about how the odds are stacked against them, or they pay lip service to the cult of failure. But I wonder how much time they spend actually reflecting on their habits, content, and products.

Lesson 10. Remember your original purpose.

We often forget — in the rush for success — what we were actually trying to achieve in the first place. In the wake of failure, it’s worth stopping to try and recover your original intent.

What did you want to produce? At what point did you lose sight of that, and start trying to make something else?

Where did you go astray?

These are questions I’ve asked myself after every rejection letter, every failed blog post, every broken heart, and every botched interview. They’ve helped a lot. From there, I could rewrite a piece from scratch — usually ten times better than the first try. I could prepare for the next job interview, and make the next relationship last a little longer.

Many of our failures stem from forgetting ourselves. We stop doing what we wanted, and start chasing what we think someone else wants. We abandon the original inspiration for something shinier.

Lesson 11. Define what failure means.

Your video didn’t go viral. Shit. But it got 400 views. You lost the race. But you set a new personal record. You made it a little further through “Stairway to Heaven” without murdering the chords. But you still haven’t mastered the song. Are these really failures?

If you’re improving, then you’re not failing. You’re um…improving. It’s that simple. Failing doesn’t make you a failure, or a rock star. It’s just something we all do a lot. To get good at failing, we have to develop some practices for looking at our failures under a microscope.

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