Have you ever failed at something so badly you feel like you couldn’t face the world? Like you’d rather stay in bed, never leaving your home or seeing anyone ever again?
I’m talking about epic, over-the-top, no-holds-barred failure where you fell down hard.
It may have come in the form of catastrophic life failures—being kicked out of the professional school you had long desired to attend, closing down a business you built from scratch or even filing for bankruptcy.
When life kicks you down and you end up back at square one, how do turn your biggest failures into success?
My experience with failure
A couple of years after I started my career in the legal field, I opened a law firm to help immigrants from around the world immigrate to the United States. My job was to assist and counsel immigrants with their U.S. visa applications and paperwork. It was a competitive business, and many law firms were already doing this kind of work.
With my legal skills, language skills and attention to details and customers, I helped create a firm that was more responsive and client-oriented. And I did have some early success.
The work I did for clients was wildly gratifying, but it was my first experience running a business. I began losing more money than I was bringing in. It got to the point where I realized I could no longer be in business and had to close my doors. I had to get a job—and quickly!
I did find work, but I had to go through the process of closing a down a business I had put all my time, money and heart into. I had to learn to deal with the failure and move forward.
Failing doesn’t prevent you from starting again
After closing the firm, I thought I never wanted to do business again. I was not prepared to ever invest in a project that took up this much time, money and energy.
After an epic failure, you often think you will never want to do that activity again. You think you will never open another business, start another restaurant, go back for another degree or license, audition for another play.
Once we’ve experienced the pain of loss, wanting to avert future loss makes sense. We would rather play it safe.
But instead of never starting again, never taking a similar action and hiding from future challenges, I took some actions to help me recover from this failed business experience.
You don’t have to view failure and loss as the final straw. You can use failure and loss to propel you to future success.
Here are six ways to turn epic failures into awesome success:
1. Know when to pull the plug
When you’re failing at something, you cannot continue to do it for the sake of persistence or determination.
If something isn’t working, see why it’s not. Get objective or expert advice from others to see what you’re doing wrong. Give yourself a timeframe to improve things or a deadline to call it quits. You cannot keep throwing in your energy, money or heart into a lost venture. You have to know when to stop. When you feel it’s time, pull the plug.
2. Accept the failure
Accepting failure is not the easiest thing in the world. We don’t like rejection, loss or drastic changes in our lives. But we need to learn how to accept failure.
Failure doesn’t say anything about you as a person. All it says is that you could have done a particular venture differently, better or not at all. (Click here to tweet this idea.)
Be prepared to accept that failures are a part of life and all the greatest people in the world became who they were through failures. Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. President Lincoln lost his fair share of elections before becoming Commander In Chief. And all of these people picked up and started again.
3. Have a plan for closure
When I had to close down my law firm, it was easy to let sadness and frustration hit. You’ll feel like doing nothing. But try not to linger in that state for too long.
Find a way to turn this into a positive activity. You don’t have to let failure stick around forever. Move forward with a plan to close things down. In my case, I found a strategy to complete each client file, found other professionals to complete outstanding cases and developed a plan to close down the administrative functions of the office.
A simple checklist of items to attack might be all you need. Another way is grouping the items for closure into big to-do tasks. For example, I had an “administrative,” “active client cases” and “office closure” task list. Each day, I’d go through to see what remaining items were left in each category and try to attack those items.
4. Find the lessons to be learned
During the process of closing my business and soon after, I reflected on what went wrong, what I could have done better and what I could do in the future.
You can write these things down or just reflect on them and try to understand them. I did a lot of my business online, so I looked through Google Analytics, Google Adsense advertising and other objective data to see how I could have marketed my services better online.
I consulted with clients who had become friends, my small staff and even my accountant to get each of their thoughts on what we could have done better to become successful.
This is a key part of failure: trying to understand what went wrong. If you learn the lessons of failure, you’ll enable failure to be a wise and powerful teacher.
Learning from failure will give you insights into what you could do differently in the future and help set you up for success in your next venture.
5. Incorporate these lessons into your new ventures
When you’ve learned the difficult life lessons, move forward by incorporating them into your next project or business.
For example, I moved on from my failed business to work for another law firm. I brought with me many insights, knowledge and skills that I was able to use to help the firm grow. I had become a better professional, a more skilled worker and had insights on what hadn’t worked for me. I was thus able to implement systems that did work and help the firm become more successful. I would regularly try to do things differently or better with the knowledge I had gained from my business experience.
6. Start again
When the circumstances warrant it and when you feel the time is right, venture out again to take another shot at what you had started before. You don’t necessarily have to go after the same business, education or relationship; just find a new goal to work towards.
You’ll be able to pursue this new goal with the knowledge of what didn’t work the last time. Although your confidence may have suffered because of your failure, here’s what you have to understand: you’re a smarter and more insightful student, entrepreneur or professional now because of that failure. You’ve done it before, survived the loss and are probably more ready than many out there to start again.
Also, success does come to those who persist. If an opportunity or venture didn’t work out, do it better the next time around.
Failure by itself may be tragic, painful and you may feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself. But it doesn’t have to be the end of everything. Failure can be the building block for future success if you handle it the right way. When you’re ready to dust yourself off and try again, having failed puts you in a position to have stronger wins in the future.
Have you failed? How did you make your comeback? Share your story with us in the comments below!
Vishnu Subramaniam writes about career, life and spirituality for his community of world-changers. You can sign up for his weekly posts at www.vishnusvirtues.com.