Mastering failure

Aug 11 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

No one likes to fail but it is part of being human. While people who become superstars may seem immune to failure, my research shows that they take the same amount of wrong turns as everyone else. What distinguishes them is that they don't let their failures interfere with their pursuit of success. They accept failure, objectively assess their options, and take constructive action.

Most of us are taught in school that failure should be avoided at all costs. Teachers make it clear that failing grades are unacceptable and is often our own fault because we haven't studied hard enough or simply don't have the proper brains. An even more insidious message that circulates among students is that people who fail are losers.

Many people take these ideas about failure that they learn as children with them into the workplace. They continue to believe that failure is 1) an indication that there is something lacking in them; and 2) a sign that they are a loser. These ideas are an over-simplification and can leave people paralyzed in the face of failure.

When a person believes that workplace failure is due to an inner flaw and makes them a loser, it can have devastating psychological effects on them and profoundly affect their feelings of self-worth.

Take for example, Jake, who was reorganized out of one job and then lost his next one soon after he started it. These failures caused him to fall into a deep depression and for the past ten years he has been unable to even consider looking for another job.

Superstars don't let failure master them. They master it. They do this by: 1) accepting failure; 2) objectively assessing their options; and 3) taking constructive action.

Accepting our failures is often the most difficult step because our emotions frequently take over when we fail. We feel angry, frustrated and even fearful of what will happen to us. While such emotions are perfectly normal, we can't respond effectively and act in our own self-interest until we have accepted the situation and put our emotions aside. As long as we remain in a state of emotional angst, it is impossible to objectively assess our options and take constructive action.

To let go of our emotions, it is helpful to take time to step back and reflect. It is also important to realize that taking responsibility for our failures doesn't mean that we need to spend endless hours blaming ourselves for what happened. This just consumes valuable mental energy that could be spent on managing the situation and charting a new course.

Superstars don't fight failure when it strikes. They accept it, step back, and make an honest assessment of the situation and what they can do, and then take action. Sam Walton who founded Wal-Mart was good at this. His first store was a Ben Franklin variety store which he opened in Newport, Arkansas. In five years he built it into a highly successful store only to discover when he went to renew his lease that he had failed to include an automatic renewal option in it.

His landlord refused to renew the lease because seeing how successful Walton was, he wanted to buy the franchise for his son. Walton was extremely upset and angry but he quickly accepted that he had made a mistake. He also realized after carefully assessing the situation that he had no option but to sell the store to his landlord and find a store in another town. So rather than fighting the situation, he began looking for a new town in which to start a store. This ultimately led to the creation of Wal-Mart.

Donald Keough's career at Coca-Cola provides another example of how superstars master failure. In 1985 when he was president of Coca-Cola, he replaced Coke's highly successful formula with a new and purportedly better formula called New Coke. It was a colossal failure.

Consumers didn't like New Coke. They liked the old Coke better. Keough quickly accepted that New Coke was a failure and focused on what to do next. Within months of New Coke's launch he pulled it from store shelves and reintroduced the old Coke. He addressed the failure of New Coke head on by going on national television and telling consumers, "You've made it clear that you want the original formula back and you're getting it back" (The New York Times, July 26, 2008).

In reflecting on this incident he recently commented that it was extremely painful but turned out well in the end for Coca-Cola. The reason lies in the fact that he accepted his mistake, objectively assessed his options, and rapidly took constructive action.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.