There's a whole cottage industry around books on how to succeed in work and life but far too few on what to do when you encounter failure. Should you hang your head and cut your losses or proactively learn lessons that will help you do things differently next time? In this post, we'll explore several proven strategies for coping with and growing through defeat, and then bringing your best game when you have the next chance to prove yourself.
- Go Back to Basics
When we look at oversimplified stories of how an entrepreneur built a billion-dollar empire, a politician became a president or prime minister, or an athlete ascended to the top of the Olympic podium, we can start to believe that all success is the result of continual and linear progress. But in reality, even such high-achieving outliers have had many times when they’ve had to go left, right, or even backward before advancing onward to reach their goals. And along the way, they’ve acquired other tactics, tools, and techniques that have served them better than if they had simply moved in a straight line from A to B. In his bestselling book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday wrote that “Reversals and regressions are as much a part of the cycle of life as anything else.” He went on to assert:
When success begins to slip from your fingers—for whatever reason—the response isn’t to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices. “He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man,” Seneca once said. Alter that: He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure. The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.
- Redefine How You View a Setback
When you’re staring failure in the face, it’s easy to get down on yourself, doubt your ability, or curse the dumb luck that put you in this undesirable situation. But often, we’re being overly emotional in a highly charged moment, failing to look at the reality objectively, and making things out to be far worse than they actually are. In one of the most highly viewed episodes of his podcast, former Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink addresses how to reframe a failed mission in any area of life:
How do I deal with setbacks, failures, delays, defeats, or other disasters? I actually have a fairly simple way of dealing with these situations, summed up in one word: “Good.” Oh, the mission got canceled? Good: we can focus on another one. Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good: we can keep it simple. Didn’t get promoted? Good: more time to get better. Didn’t get funded? Good: we own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good: go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume. Got injured? Good: needed a break from training. Got tapped out? Good: it’s better to tap out in training than tap out on the street. Got beat? Good: we learned. Unexpected problems? Good: we have to figure out a solution. That’s it. When things are going bad: Don’t get all bummed out, don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated. If you can say the word “good,” then guess what? It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you. So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, reengage, and go out on the attack.
- Find Value in an L
If you go online to check the standings of your favorite NBA, NFL, or NHL team, their place will be defined by the numbers in two columns: wins (Ws) and losses (Ls), which will ultimately determine if they make the playoffs or not. However, life is not the same as pro sports, and the most consistently high-performing individuals and teams have learned that every defeat can be a valuable teacher, if viewed correctly. As the rapper Lecrae once sang, “Took a lot of Ls, called ‘em lessons, never took a loss.”
There’s a big difference in losing because you were unprepared and didn’t put in the work versus giving your best effort and still coming up short. In his book Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, John C. Maxwell wrote:
If you’re going to lose – and you are because everyone does – then why not turn it into a gain? How do you do that? By learning from it. A loss isn’t totally a loss if you learn something as a result of it. Your losses can come to define you if you let them. If you stay where a loss leaves you, then eventually you can get stuck there. But know this: your choices will begin to declare you. You can choose to change, grow, and learn from your losses.
So how do you pan for gold nuggets in the muddy river of defeat? First, take a good, hard look at the situation as if you were an impartial but knowledgeable observer. Start by affirming all the things you did well. For example, perhaps you put a lot of time into a work presentation and did plenty of research. Great – be sure to repeat these same steps next time. Then be brutally honest about what you did poorly that resulted in the client going with another vendor. Maybe you ran out of time and so the graphics you threw in at the last minute were haphazard, or you forgot to include a couple of key statistics that could’ve helped you make a stronger case for your company. Finally, state what you’re going to do differently or better in the future, like managing your prep time more proactively and adding the graphics first so you can build the rest of the presentation around them.
This three-stage learning process isn’t just relevant to the boardroom – you can apply it to any situation in which you fall short. British prime minister, orator, and writer Winston Churchill is famous for helping lead the Allies to victory in World War II but had to confront his fair share of setbacks, including being sent into the political wilderness in the 1930s because nobody believed his warnings about Hitler and getting voted out of office after the war. His verdict on balancing such lows with the high points of his career? “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”