When was the last time you failed at something?  Perhaps it was while giving a presentation that didn’t go so well, delivering a sales pitch that sunk in the water, or working on a pet project that experienced a series of unforeseen disasters?

Whatever it was—you just didn’t perform up to par and instead of receiving validation and approval, you received disapproval and criticism from those around you.  Your usual sense of achievement and external validation was replaced with a sense of failure and self-directed shame.

What I know for sure from working with high-achieving, driven, and successful people over the years is that no-one is exempt from failure.  We all mess up, make mistakes, and fail at an attempt to do something. Some of the most successful or innovative people in history failed over and over again at things they attempted.(Think Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and Steve Jobs, just to name a few…)  We see only the successes and assume they have some sort of “super-human” touch that exempts them from failing at anything.

The big difference I have noticed is how we deal with failure.  Some of us pick up, bounce back, and keep moving forward despite a failed attempt at something.  Others personalize the failed attempt (or attempts) and associate it with self-worth and identity.   They wallow in self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness, quit any other attempts, and avoid being put in the position to fail again.  They abandon all risk of failure, become paralyzed, and protect themselves from the potential of any future disapproval.

How you recover from so-called “failure” makes all the difference on whether you stay stuck or continue on with subsequent successes.

Here are four things to do to recover from inevitable failure quickly:

1.    Distinguish yourself from the action that failed

When we personalize an action that didn’t go so well, we identify our self with the perceived failure.

“I am a horrible presenter” is very different than “My presentation today didn’t go over well today”.    See the difference?

This seemingly simple change empowers you with the choice to change your behavior and actions in the future.  When you associate the failure with something that is wrong with you, it is much more difficult to focus on what you can do differently next time

 2.    Reframe your perception of failure

Viewing failures as temporary, normal setbacks in the course of trying different things is crucial.  When something you try doesn’t work out or go well, it doesn’t mean that the entire thing is a failure.  It may mean that you need to try another approach, make adjustments, start over, or do something different.   Or, the setback could have provided a valuable learning that you needed for the future. There are many setbacks and lessons on the road to success.

3.    Set a 1-day pity party limit

When we experience a setback or what we perceive as a failure, it is common to wallow in our negative emotions.  Embarrassment, shame, self-pity, self-doubt and the like all show up to remind us of our failure.  How long we allow them to prevail is up to us.

So go ahead—wallow.  Invite all the usual suspects in your head to participate in beating you up.  But here’s the catch– allow yourself only one day for the pity party, and then dump the baggage permanently.  Yes, tell them all to leave.  They had their fun—now it is time for you to move on with moving on.  The wallowing is done.  You have more important things to do.

4.    Be graceful and keep moving forward

Who is the current top contender for the Democratic party presidential nomination?  Hillary Clinton.  Who lost the nomination in the last bid?  Hillary Clinton.  Who took the role as Secretary of State for the candidate that beat her out?  Okay, you get the picture.

Regardless of your politics, Hilary cannot be seen as someone who failed.  She moved on with grace and kept moving forward.   How you react is up to you when you are faced with a setback.

If you are experiencing a setback—remember that you are the one who makes the choices.  You cannot always control the circumstances you face or the mistakes you make, but you can control your response to them.


Will you allow a setback to define you and hold you back, or serve as a learning platform for your success?