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What We Can Learn From Our Workplace Failures

Failure teaches us who we are and how to succeed next time.

Key points

  • Failure impacts everyone: From Stephen King to Oprah Winfrey, many of the most successful people have failed at some point.
  • Failure in the workplace is often a sign an employee does not align well with that environment, not that they are incapable of success.
  • Failure offers a powerful and valuable opportunity to learn more about oneself and what kind of workplace will set one up for success.
Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
Source: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio

When author Stephen King wrote the novel, Carrie, in the early 1970s, he was so short on money that he had to disconnect his phone line. And he was so certain of the failure of Carrie that he threw away the first few chapters before he finished. Luckily, his wife dug the pages out of the garbage. He finished the book, but it was rejected by 30 publishers. He finally found a publisher—who had to send him a telegram to indicate their interest, since he had no phone. The rest of Stephen King’s writing career is legendary. But at the time, failure seemed certain, and if King had stopped writing, or stopped submitting the book after a dozen (or even two dozen attempts), that failure might have seemed permanent.

Failure does not mean we are incapable

Failure is inevitable. Being a failure is not. For some, that is hardly a notable statement—they understand that the path to success is always paved with mistakes and detours along the way. For others, it can take decades to understand and accept that failure is a part of life.

Occasionally, we are reminded that some of the most iconic success stories in history, from Walt Disney to Oprah Winfrey, failed many times in their careers. Disney was told by a newspaper editor that he lacked imagination. Oprah was told she was unfit for television. But for all of us, the lessons learned during our recovery from failure are what really help us to make sense of the circumstances. Often failure is simply an indication that we are not a fit for those circumstances, not that we are incapable of achievement.

Failure—and success—require context

In business, many organizations will be tempted to hire people based on what they have achieved elsewhere. To a certain degree, this makes sense—the goal being that success elsewhere can be replicated here. However, often the hires that fail to work out are because the organization did not consider the fit between the company and the hire. Either the company did not recognize the fit wasn’t there, or they didn’t manage the existing teams and properly help them adjust to a new style or strategy.

To be clear, I’m not endorsing a sort of “cultural fit” strategy, which can be very problematic and limit hiring to those with similar backgrounds and perspectives. When I say fit, I mean to consider whether your work style aligns with the way the company operates, how its teams communicate, their methods of measuring success, and other elements of how an organization lives and breathes. Employers might ask more situational questions to get at just this sort of information in the hiring process. And those being interviewed should feel comfortable asking those questions, too.

The value of failure is what you learn from it

When we are the one who has failed, it’s important to recognize that often it isn’t due to a lack of competence, or insufficient effort. We all do best when working for an organization that aligns with our strengths, personality, work style, and goals.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” You can adopt this attitude as well. When you are told that you have failed in some way, consider first the circumstances where you succeeded and use this moment to learn what was different. What specifically helped you to thrive there? Did you benefit from a particularly supportive manager? Was your team hand-picked by you or already in place? What was the culture of that work environment: Was it informal or highly structured? What were the strengths you brought and how did you accommodate your weaknesses?

Don’t get overly consumed with one failure as a reflection of your limitations. Instead, use it as a data point to help you understand the right environment for you. And when you are looking at your next opportunity, use those learnings to ask informed questions that can illuminate a mismatch or a perfect fit.