Failing at Work Can Make You More Successful

Failure isn’t fun, but it can teach us valuable lessons. Instead of viewing failure as a setback, reframe it as a stepping stone on the road to success. To do that, you’ll need resilience.

Vanessa Gibbs — October 18, 2023

Some of the greatest success stories start with failure. 

Henry Ford filed for bankruptcy twice before starting Ford Motor Company. Arianna Huffington’s second book was rejected by a whopping 37 publishers. Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple and Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for lacking imagination. 

The key factor in all of these stories is that failure didn’t stop any of them from persevering and eventually becoming hugely successful. 

Perseverance in the face of failure is easier said than done, though. But reframing how you think about failure and actively building resilience can set you up for success. 

 

Failure Can Reveal Weaknesses 

When we fail, we learn what our weaknesses are, so we can improve. We learn more about the customers we’re serving or the teams we’re working with, so we can drive success the next time we try. We learn what ideas don’t work, so we recognize one that does.

Just take Starbucks as an example. 

Nobody visited Howard Schultz’s first coffee shop. But that failure helped him learn what customers didn’t like—such as the all-Italian menus. Schultz learned from his early mistakes and launched the hugely successful Starbucks. 

The Blink to Fail Fast, Fail Often shares this story and argues that trial and error—and learning from those errors—allows us to rapidly improve our skills and get one step closer to success. 

 

Failure Makes You Work Harder

Failing at work sounds like a nightmare come true. 

➡️ You launch a new feature and it falls flat.
➡️ You take the lead on a sales pitch and stumble over your words.
➡️ You pitch an inventive idea to your boss and they shrug it off. 

Failure stings, but it’s a useful lesson. It builds character and determination, and it could even make you more successful in the long run. 

One study found scientists who narrowly missed out on an important grant early in their career went on to publish more successful papers than scientists who received the grant. The failure seemed to fuel the scientists who missed out to work harder, putting them ahead later in their career.

 

How to Build Resilience at Work  

You could read all the inspirational stories out there about how failure turns into success, but still—nobody wants to fail. To make failures work to your advantage when they happen, you need to build resilience and get back up when a setback knocks you down. Here’s how you can build resilience at work:

Change the Way You Think About Failure 

Instead of failure being something you try to avoid at all costs, see failure as a welcomed opportunity to learn and grow. 

Playing it safe to avoid failure can hold you and your team back at work. You need to view setbacks as a part of the package—you can’t have success without them.

To overcome the fear of failing, check out this Collection on embracing failure. These 12 Blinks will teach you how to battle perfectionism, performance anxiety, and self-doubt to help you forge ahead with new goals—even when there’s a chance they could fall flat. 

You can discover The Discomfort Zone in this Collection, which shares ways to reframe your fear of failure, such as visualization and positive self-talk. These techniques can give you the confidence you need to take more risks. 

And if and when you do fail, other people won’t notice as much as you think. Starr explains the “spotlight effect,” which is when we believe others think about us more than they really do. Psychology studies show we perceive this as a whopping 50% higher than it really is. 

 

Fail More 

We’re not recommending you go out there and take huge risks or get fired tomorrow, but try exposing yourself to small failures. When failure isn’t a big scary “what if?” anymore, you can develop the confidence needed to take bigger risks. 

Small moments that could lead to failure could look like trying a new project management tool or setting up an office handball team. The company isn’t going to crumble if these projects go wrong, but you’ll train yourself to try, fail, and keep going. You’ll develop the grit needed to bounce back and keep trying new ideas.

Want to develop more grit? Listen to this TED Talk on The Power of Grit by Angela Lee  Duckworth. It explores how a growth mindset can help you see failure as a temporary condition and build the grit needed to persevere.

 

Aim to Fail 

Another method is aiming for failure, not success. 

Choose a project or two where you try to fail. Maybe you set a goal that’s just out of reach or try an approach that seems counterintuitive. If you succeed, that’s a bonus. But the goal is to fail once or twice and desensitize yourself to it in a safe environment.

Of course, not everyone has the privilege to risk purposely failing at work, which we reocgnize. Another option is to aim to fail in spaces you feel comfortable. You could, for example, start taking small risks in your personal life or hobbies to experience failure. 

 

Start Learning from the Failures

Failure won’t be as useful if you don’t learn from them. When something goes wrong, take time to reflect on why it wasn’t successful. 

Write down what you can learn from a failure, both when it’s fresh in your mind and when some time has passed and you’ve gained more perspective. Ask yourself:

  • What worked, what didn’t? 
  • Do you need more support or input from other teams?
  • Did you make mistakes that lead to new knowledge?
  • If it happened again, what would you change or try?
  • Did any failures come down to personality or work style?

You can then present these notes to your team, so more people can benefit from your learnings and avoid making those mistakes as well.

To go a step further, ask your coworkers, if they were involved in the project or strategy, for constructive feedback. You can also seek out training or set up systems to prevent similar setbacks from happening in the future. 

 

Cultivate a Work Culture in Which Failure is Accepted  

Employees are never going to bring forward new ideas or volunteer to take on new responsibilities if they’re afraid of what’ll happen if things go wrong. This is a lose-lose situation. The employee can’t grow in their role and the wider team and company misses out on what could be innovative ways to move the business forward. 

To combat this, aim to cultivate a work culture in which it’s okay—and perhaps even celebrated—when people fail. 

You can do this by making time to bounce out of the box ideas or experiment with new ways of working. Give teams the chance to try and fail, and be open and compassionate when projects don’t go to plan. 

If something doesn’t work, discuss what went wrong and what you learned from it, and then move swiftly on to the next—hopefully successful—project. 

If you’re looking to build a culture of ideation, sharing, and learning swiftly from experimentation, check out this Blink to The Fearless Organization. It covers how to build psychologically safety at work so teams feel empowered to speak up, share ideas, and take on tasks even if they could fail.

As a leader, you can learn how to encourage a culture of openness, questioning, and experimentation that leads to learning and success.

 

Turn Failure into Success 

Failure isn’t the end of the road—it’s just one part of the journey towards success. The key is learning from failures and using them as fuel to work harder and better. Resilience can give employees the confidence to try and fail and the ability to bounce back from failure stronger than before.

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Vanessa is a freelance writer living in London. She mostly writes for tech companies in the health, travel, and education spaces, and loves diving into topics about work culture and professional development. When not at her laptop, she loves to run, travel, and scuba dive wherever she can.

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