Despite the embarrassment, embrace failure as path to your success

I spend a fair amount of my workday listening to people talk about their failures and mistakes. As a career counselor, I work with people who are trying to make sense of why they were let go or why their careers aren’t progressing as planned. The stories range anywhere from human error to miniature disaster to “I cannot believe I did that!”

Clients have talked about losing their cool with an important customer and ultimately losing a key account, blurting out a curse word during an important interview, making an accounting error that cost the company a sizeable sum, and sending a confidential email to the wrong person in the contact list. Yikes! In moments like these, we often wish for a “do-over day.”

Since time travel only happens in sci-fi fantasies, it behooves us to learn how to recover from fumbles and failures. Spanish philosopher Georges Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The key to recovering from failure lies in taking the time to acknowledge and learn from the experience. Success is not defined by the absence of failure but rather by the ability to learn and grow from our mistakes.

We are human, and we all blow it from time to time. Here are some tips for living and learning from our less-than-stellar moments:

Own It. When we mess up, it is tempting to point the finger at someone else. We may blame poor management, a heavy workload or stress in our personal lives. Granted, there may be contributing factors but we ultimately need to own our actions and behaviors. This is not the time to defend, minimize or make excuses for what went wrong. Admission of failure and taking full responsibility is the first step towards recovery.

Self-discovery. Admitting we have failed to do our best is a perfect segue to healthy self-exploration. The moments when we blow it are not necessarily one-time events. In some cases, our blunders are preceded by a history of similar gaffes. However, it may take some time before you are able to look at your behavior with an objective eye in order to uncover any self-destructive patterns.

Allow time to process feelings of embarrassment, defeat or anger. Remind yourself that real growth often happens because of challenges and setbacks. If you need encouragement, it may help to think of all the famous people who have experienced serious failure on their way to excellence.

For example, teachers deemed young Thomas Edison too stupid to learn. Stephen King received 30 rejection letters for his iconic thriller, “Carrie.” Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Failure can either take us down or it can lead to defining moments in our careers and lives.

Get feedback. We all have blind spots. Sometimes we need input from a trusted counselor, mentor or colleague in order to gain insight about a mistake. Feedback from a compassionate friend can help us put a career misstep into perspective as well as help us see how we can avoid similar situations in the future.

Make it right. It can be incredibly healing for others and ourselves when we take quick action to make amends. Granted, we cannot always repair the damage we have caused. However, we can offer sincere apologies and take steps to make things as right as possible.

We also need to commit to improving. Actions speak louder than words. Go the extra mile to correct the error in your ways. Eventually people will notice and appreciate the effort you are making to improve or grow.

Accept yourself and others. Acceptance does not imply that you did nothing wrong. It simply means that you accept failure as a learning and growth opportunity. Acceptance is what allows us to see the positive aspects of our challenges rather than internalize or overly identify with where we went wrong. Self-acceptance helps us move beyond feelings of anguish and fosters a sense of pride in our ability to overcome setbacks and adversity.

When we learn to forgive ourselves, it also becomes easier to accept others. We tend to have more compassion rather than sit in judgment when a colleague fails to deliver or faces a setback.

Normalize failure. Even the word “failure” can make some people bristle. As a recruiter, I have noticed that many candidates don’t like to be asked about career failures. Some even get downright testy, “I have never failed. I just don’t believe in labeling anything in my life a failure.” Really? We can waste time searching for a more palatable term or we can focus on the lessons learned from our less-than-stellar moments.

Shifting our attitude about failure can free us up to take more risks in our careers. Our failures can then be worn like badges of honor, as opposed to ugly wounds or scars we want to hide from the world.

The workplace shapes us. Successfully overcoming challenges and failures can be as valuable to our career progression as our brightest accomplishments. It may sound crazy but it is true.

You might never get to the point where you relish failure or making mistakes. However, the next time you blow it, you might not yearn for a “do-over” day. That would rob you of an opportunity to come back stronger than ever. Humbly embrace your failures. It turns out that failure is the surest path to success.

Carrie Pinsky is a freelance writer, job-search coach and training specialist. Reach her at Pink Sky Counseling and Career Services, 970-225-0772 or


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