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What Happens When Things Go Wrong

Originally published May 06, 2014

The rise of the startup economy – and the abundance of millennial entrepreneurial wisdom it has produced – means you can hardly go a day without seeing Samuel Becket’s words writ large:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

In celebrating failure, it seems that these commentaries posit failure to be okay. I think this is the wrong conclusion to draw; I would argue instead that failure is inevitable. Everyone fails. Rather than wearing failure as a badge of honor (looking at you, Silicon Valley), here is how I have come to experience, and understand, failure:

Admit defeat

Assuming responsibility for a failure is never easy. It is important to know, however, that it is never not your fault. Fault is a complex equation. Whether your failure was a direct result of your own actions or not, it is vital to be accountable for the outcome of everything you do. The people I admire are really, really good at taking responsibility for their actions. I aspire to be so willing to admit defeat.

Take time to reflect

Retrospect is invaluable, but only possible when you take time to process your experience. When you fail, stop yourself from rushing back into the fold. Take a look at things from multiple angles. Get all your navel-gazing in at once. Reflection and introspection can be intuitive processes, but are too often overwhelmed by in the desire to failure behind you.

Define success

Roughly estimating, I would say 50 percent of my failures were guaranteed from the start. Taking the time at the beginning of a new project to define success and think about what is needed to achieve that success can make all the difference.

Remember your failures

Memories of failure are anything but pleasant: gut-wrenching, embarrassing, awkward, and self-esteem rattling. At the risk of cheesiness, however, I would argue that preserving memories of failure makes success that much sweeter. Seriously. To have tried and failed is to be that much more appreciative of your accomplishments. Do not underestimate the future motivational potential of each failure.

Failure sucks. It’s not pretty, it’s not glorious, and no amount of cheerleading will change that. But it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest motivators of success.

So try again, fail again, fail better, and succeed.