Failure Can Be Good for You: Here’s Why

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“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling” read one of the early rejection letters sent to Dr. Seuss, who went on to become the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time.

Thomas Edison, one of the most recognized inventors in the world, tried 1,000 different prototypes of the light bulb until he found the one that worked.

When Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1979 tried to sell their Traf-O-Data device, which they designed to read data from roadway traffic counters, it didn’t work.

What do these widely disparate people have in common? They each experienced serious failure, and they each didn’t give up. If you are feeling that the year 2013 did not live up to your high hopes at this time last year, you are not alone. Many smart people fail and some even fail miserably. In fact, if you ask most successful businesspeople about their careers, they will probably tell you about several failures they have had along the way. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, only about 48 percent of new small businesses pass the five-year mark.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something,” J.K. Rowling said in her 2008 Harvard commencement address, “unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.” Rowling knows a little about the subject of failure. Twelve publishers rejected her first Harry Potter book, and even the company that eventually published Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone told her there wasn’t much money in children’s books.

Ultimately, what makes the difference between success and failure in a career is how you deal with your setbacks.  It comes down to a basic question: do you let failure define you or do you let it motivate you?

While I’m not suggesting you add “failure” to your list of New Year’s resolutions, here are five ways failure can be good for you and your career.

5 Ways Why Failing Can Be Good for You

1. Failure can be good for your ego. When we are successful all the time, or even most of the time, we tend to take credit for it ourselves. Failure keeps us humble.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Failure is not an option” so much that you believe it. While that philosophy makes sense when it is attributed to Gene Kranz, the flight director of the crippled Apollo 13 mission, it can be a huge stumbling block in everyday business decisions.

Don’t feel that when an idea doesn’t work that it is a personal failure. Many ideas don’t work – particularly in today’s economy –and it is not your fault.  Pick yourself up and try something else.

2. Failure broadens your perspective. If you start expecting that some failure is inevitable, it helps you to look at problems with a wider lens. Maybe you don’t have to scrap every part of a failed marketing plan, for example. Perhaps that new slogan is a good one, but you did not portray it in the right way to attract your demographic. Take a look at the plan piece by piece to see what works and what needs to be re-worked or scrapped.

3. Failure helps you come up with new ideas. When we fail at something we have worked on, it can indeed be painful.  But the old adage about hindsight being 20/20 is true. When failure affords you the opportunity of taking a second look at a business idea, you can often make it better than it was before. Chances are pretty good you or your team members came up with some other ideas that you could now revisit and develop.

4. Failure teaches you to ask for and to accept advice. When you experience failure, it is discouraging.  There is no getting around that. Once you have gotten over the initial pangs of letdown, however, ask friends and colleagues for their advice. You will find most people to be very forthcoming about their own failures and to be supportive of your plan to try again.

When you admit a failure, you can open yourself up to learning about similar situations others have had. You can then learn from each other’s mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask someone you trust and admire “What did I do wrong?” or “What would you do in this situation?”

5. Failure keeps you open to possibilities. In his book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, John C. Maxwell says “the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and their response to failure.”

That difference can determine your success down the road. The mission of FailCon, a San Francisco-based company that offers conferences for technology entrepreneurs, investors, developers, and designers, is to have participants hear and share failure stories and to use them to prepare for success.

When you share your negative experiences, it can free you up to discovering more opportunities.  For example, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said in a 2011 interview that what he and Bill Gates learned in creating the failed Traf-O-Data was crucial to the development of Microsoft’s first product a few years later.

Even a limited success can breed inertia. Even a major failure can breed motion. When you accept that some failure is a part of a healthy career, you will be better prepared to handle it when it comes.

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