How To Turn Failure Into Stepping Stones to Success

When you acknowledge the setback, analyze it intentionally, and widen your view, it's easier to reach your goals.

walking up the steps

Have you ever had a slime-running-down-your-arm kind of moment? Mine was in my late 20s, taking the trash out for the wholesale florist warehouse I worked for. I was not, I thought at the time, supposed to be handling gross things. I was supposed to be successful — nowhere near the dumpster. Yet, there I was with an unidentifiable ooze on me, trying to provide for my family in what seemed like a dead-end job.

At first, I froze and asked: How did my life come to floral garbage? I felt like I'd failed. Looking back now, I understand how that slime-covered moment became one of the most pivotal of my life. Because in that moment, I realized that failure, as we think of it, doesn't exist. It's fear of failure, not failure itself, that holds us back. Once you reframe failure as a learning process, you can leverage it to achieve your goals.

Acknowledge It

It's difficult to accept our failures and admit that we haven't accomplished the desired results, especially when it brings up insecurities. We find ourselves planted firmly in a world of discomfort. And when we face discomfort, naturally, we seek comfort. But in turning to the familiar, we're resigning ourselves to stagnancy instead of challenging ourselves to rise from it. To get past failure, you have to admit that the slime exists.

Think of failure as a game of chess. We protect ourselves from failure as we might protect our king on the chessboard. But contrary to popular belief, failure is not our king. We don't need to protect ourselves from failure; we need to protect our purpose, our "why," our king on the board. Every challenge we face should track back to that bigger purpose. Failure is not your king; failure is a pawn. When we use failure (just as we use our pawns in chess) to test the waters and protect even our loftiest goals, we iterate, and we learn. We may lose a pawn here and there when we fail, but the game is not over just because we lose a piece.

We have to fail in order to succeed. We're still in play as long as we protect our king.

Learn From It

It's easy to think that anytime we fail, we're moving further away from the goals we're passionate about. We think we have to start from the bottom and work our way back to the top. But this couldn't be further from the truth. When we fail, we're actually propelling ourselves closer and closer to our "why."

Instead of working from the bottom up, start with your purpose and passion and work from the top down. If you stay committed to that goal at the top, it will naturally pave your path and help you redefine failure as a necessary part of the journey. Your lofty purposes will drive you towards your goals and demand action by default.

So how does failure lead you to those goals? It serves as a black box on a plane. You hope you won't need it, but when something goes wrong, you have a roadmap to make adjustments. If the worst happens, analysis of the black box, your failures, gives clues about where the failure occurred. Just like a team of investigators examining black box data, I analyze my failures to adjust my path and propel me forward toward my purposeful destination.

Move On

One of the biggest reasons failure tends to set people back is that they often lack proper perspective. Down in the trenches of failure, it can be hard to frame it as a stepping stone to success, but often, that's all you need to do to turn things around.

In fact, that's exactly what I had to do when I first started working at Insperity. I'd heard the CEO speak and researched the company; I knew with certainty that that's where I wanted to end up. When I saw that they had an opening for a sales manager role, I thought I'd found my answer. But they ended up hiring someone else, and I was devastated. However, I decided to use this "failure" as a stepping stone, so I went back to the hiring manager and asked to be brought on as a sales rep, even though that meant a pay cut.

It hurt to be passed over for that manager role, but I honed my skills and got my foot in the door at my dream company. In just a year, I was promoted to the sales manager job I'd originally wanted. I realized that maybe I hadn't failed; I just took a different route, based on my passion and purpose, to the same destination. Sometimes, that unexpected path can lead you to even better results. Without that experience during my first year with Insperity, I wouldn't have been on the front lines, learning what sales reps needed in a manager. Ultimately, what started as a "failure" made me an even better resource for my team.

In the heat of the moment, look at the bigger picture. I've been through enough to know that challenges won't kill me. If you can keep that same perspective, you can learn to not give an issue more weight than it deserves. When you learn to stop taking minor failures too seriously, you've already taken the first step to reaching those goals you're committed to.

Fall Down Seven, Get up Eight

None of us are perfect. We'll fall short sometimes. But in her book of the same name, Angela Duckworth describes grit as the intersection of passion and perseverance. And that grit in the face of failure is the motivation we need to propel us forward. When you acknowledge the setback, analyze it intentionally, and widen your view, it's easier to reach your goals. In the words of a Japanese proverb, "fall down seven times, get up eight." Even when things go wrong, be strong enough to stand back up once again.

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