4 Tips for Failing Forward

After you make a mistake, it’s easy to focus intently on your defects. And then to skewer yourself for them. But here’s the thing—some of the most successful people don’t avoid making mistakes. You know what they do instead? They fail forward. Meaning, they turn their mistake or failure into a win.

So how can you develop this resiliency superpower? For one thing, get your mindset right. Don’t be a victim. Be open to playing an active role in negotiating a new direction for your failure.  Then boldly take these 4 steps forward:

1. Resolve that the failure itself isn’t the ‘final word’.

One woman I coached recalled how she failed miserably at a highly quantitative stretch assignment. Rather than cower and run, she asked leaders if she could take another stab at it. With more experience on what to avoid, she delivered the goods capably, and was told she “knocked it out of the park.” If you’re dealing with a fixable failure, which I’d argue most are, be dogged that you’ll write a new ending to the story.

2. Determine the One Thing.

Doing a lengthy post-mortem of our failure is usually emotionally exhausting and less instructive than we think. Plus, when we ruminate on each action we took, it can be impossible to remember later exactly where we went wrong. Do yourself a favor: Figure out what single move, tactic or play you should have made differently and why it was at the epicenter of the project’s success or failure.

3. Believe every skill is acquirable.

If you fail at a project that’s highly technical for example, resist the urge to think “you’ve either got it or you don’t” when it comes to all technical ability. Avoid that black and white thinking by adopting a more developmental, growth mindset: just like any muscle of yours that can become stronger with cumulative exercise – so can your skill base in a given area.

4. Seek someone out to normalize the experience.

I asked a group of professional women in my negotiation training how they coped with rejection. One woman explained that when she negotiated a raise and got a “No,” she went to her car, cried, and proceeded to mentally steep in her failure alone for the next 2-3 weeks. Contrast that with a different woman who faced a failed negotiation. She immediately approached a mentor at her same company, where she was told that getting a “No” was entirely normal and not personal to her. The second woman bounced back immediately, thanks to having her experience normalized. Consult someone more seasoned or tenured than you and let them give you their read.

Next time you fail, try to embrace it. See your failures as necessary to your learning, not optional or avoidable. If you can do that, you’re guaranteed not to make the same mistake twice!

Photo credits: Sarah Kilian

Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani is a recognized consultant, speaker and author on women and leadership.  A seasoned human capital consultant, Selena uses workplace culture assessments to help corporate clients be more inclusive and welcoming to women.  She’s also the author of two leadership books targeted at professional women – Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and The Next Generation of Women Leaders (Praeger, 2009). Selena has been featured in the LA Times, Oprah.com, Todayshow.com, Forbes, and wrote an award-winning column on women for The Washington Post.

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