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Professional Failure

Moving On: How to Learn From Professional Failure and Shape It Into Success

Approach Professional Failure Head On and Turn Roadblocks Into Your Road to Success

We have all experienced failure in our professional lives. And while no one enjoys opening old wounds, especially in front of colleagues and those they hold in esteem, it is important to examine our failures so we can learn from them. Organizations such as the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital and the United States Air Force, for example, encourage members to identify failure, report it—whether through “blameless reporting” systems or mandatory reporting—and then allow others to learn from these failures as a team, without disparagement.

Most people prefer to process failure internally. By doing so, they can then move on quickly. Processing fear internally is beneficial, because most people don’t wish to cause a scene or seem unprofessional in the workplace. But identifying failure openly can also benefit the team. How does one handle fear in the workplace? How does one’s team engage? On a company-wide level, how does a leader engage with the team and superiors in moments of failure?

So often, we focus on talking about failure in the moment it happens, but rarely do we talk about it after it has occurred. This conversation is an important one on both an individual and a team level.

Get up and Move On

When processing professional failure, remember the phrase, “Get over it, get on with it.” First, forgive yourself for the failure. Secondly, try to learn from the failure. Always remember, to err is most decidedly human. The third step is to move on. Focusing too much energy on mourning the failure can put you in a self-defeating loop.

Understanding the Mistake: 3 Types of Professional Failure

There are three different types of failures:

  • Preventable failure—This is often the most straightforward; it happens when one doesn’t take into account what one already knows. For example, not saving enough money for a business endeavor.
  • Complex failure—This occurs due to a combination of internal and external factors coming together to produce an outcome. These factors may be out of your control.
  • Intelligent failure—This type of failure tends to be uncharted territory. You may be attempting something for the first time, without outside support.

Understanding the type of professional failure can help you understand the solution. What could have been done differently? What was within your control and what wasn’t? What adjustments could you make to get you closer to success on the next attempt? What precautions can you take next time to mitigate and insure against risks?

Success Prevails When We Acknowledge Failure

Failures are the flip-side of success. We often look at what we did correctly so we can replicate it, but, in reality, examining our failures—and the factors affecting them—can often better teach us. And being better educated in your area of expertise often leads to greater success.

They say hindsight is 20/20. Let us use that clarity to our advantage. Processing failure will always lead to success. Take some time to look back, examine what happened, and figure out what could and should have been done differently. In many ways, business is no different than life. Once you have an experience, the way in which you react to it is what defines it. Will it be dealt with head-on, or will it be put away and forgotten?

You’ll likely find that, just like in life, when further trouble arises, that thing you put in the cupboard is all you can think about. At the most basic level, however, if you continually try to avoid and ignore a professional failure, you miss an opportunity to learn and grow from it. Get over it. Learn from it. Get on with it.


[Editor’s Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinar series: Business Advice: From Startup to Sale and The Start-Up / Small Business Advisor. This is an updated version of an article originally published on October 30, 2018.]

©All Rights Reserved. March, 2021.  DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik Managing Partner, Spitulnik Advisors, LLC David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private…

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