What I’ve Learned From Failure (And How It Can Help You)

By June 8, 2012 February 1st, 2018 Marketing Insights & Strategy
What I've Learned From Failure (And How It Can Help You)

Do you ever wake up in the morning with that dread feeling of “oh god I have to tackle that thing today?”

Do you ever sit down to learn or try something new and feel like doing a Don-the-Muppet and banging your head on the piano keys because you’ll never get it right?

Yeah, me too.

I’ve been thinking about the topic of failure a lot lately, mostly because I’m at a point in my business where I feel that I have to grow or die. I’m good at this and that but I want (need) to be good at the other thing, too.

Here’s what I currently do for my business, lest you think I’m a slacker: I’m a writer, project manager, WordPress developer, social media manager, bookkeeper, sandwich maker and cat feeder. And that doesn’t count this blog.

But here’s the thing. Lately, I feel that if I really want to be better – be the best – I have to learn something new. There are certain skills that if only I could add them to my repertoire, would give me a boost up over the wall and open up about a billion new doors.

And so I approach them with complete and utter terror.

Does this ever happen to you? If not, forget I said anything, confessions are over, go home.

If so, come along with me because I’ve explored many of the paths of mental disarray that lead to failure and I’ve come up with some pretty encouraging truisms that can help us both.

Failure Doesn’t Define Me

If you haven’t failed a bunch then you haven’t tried very hard. I’ve failed at everything from grilling a salmon to winning that job that landed in my lap last week. Here is a short list of things I’ve tried and failed at: playing piano, tap dancing, losing that last #&%[email protected]!!! ten pounds, saving the world.

Here are a few things I haven’t failed at but are giving me night sweats as I attempt them now: PHP coding, improving my in-person networking skills, losing that last #&%[email protected]!!! ten pounds.

Take stock: are there things you’ve tried and failed or just given up on? How about things you’re trying now, with hopes of a happy ending?

What I’ve come to realize is that none of these events define me. I am more than my inability to play Beethoven. I am more than my lack of networking skills (yes, I will totally forget your name in about five milliseconds, like before you even inhale after speaking it to me).

And so are you.

For business owners it can be particularly difficult to separate “I screwed up that client account” from “I screwed up my whole life”. We’re invested emotionally in our businesses so every wrong turn can feel like a personal blow.

But if you let the failures define you then you’re setting yourself up not only for personal failure but for business failure as well. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you feel like a crappy miserable loser. That is neither correct thinking nor helpful thinking.

So you lost a client. Your email campaign totally bombed. A few disgruntled people badmouthed you on Facebook. You wanted to make your first million about five years ago and yet you’re still working to pay the mortgage.

Are you going to let it suck you into a funnel of despair?

No, here’s what you’re going to do instead.

Redefine your script.

“I failed to run a successful email campaign” does not equal “I am a failure.” Failure is an event. It’s not you. Next time you’re tempted to play the downtrodden victim of your own demise, focus on the event instead. “That email campaign was a failure.” See the difference? By attaching failure where it belongs (to the thing that failed, not the person) you can detach emotionally and start evaluating, learning and planning something new. Ask WHY something failed. Then move forward with the confidence of your insight and ready to take on whatever comes next.

My friend and fellow blogger Sylvianne Nuccio has a great post on breaking out of victim mentality. Check it out when you’re done here.

Failure Is Not The End Of The World, Life Or My Business

Do you ever feel that if just one more thing goes wrong it’s going to be the last straw and universes will crumble around you? That you’re at the end of your rope, ready to pull out that final Jenga block and wait for everything to crash down?

For some people it’s easy to ride the waves of success and conveniently forget all the crummy things that happened along the way. Some people are lucky enough to have egos that support their constant sense of accomplishment.

If that’s you, here’s your second chance to go home.

For the rest of us, we can easily get mired in the accumulation of losses big and small. There are days when I feel that if one more person unsubscribes from my email list I’m going to quit my business entirely and move to a hut on a mountaintop.

Take stock: do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the daily frustrations and the bigger defeats? Are you sometimes on the edge of your seat wondering if the last block is going to get pulled out from under you?

Here’s the reality: failure is inevitable. It’s often also useful. It’s the way that we learn and the reason we try something new in the first place.

If you put it into perspective I bet you can think of about a billion ways you’ve failed all your life. I bet the first time you let go of the edge of the coffee table to take a step for the first time, you failed and fell flat on your cushy little behind. But I bet you’re walking today, aren’t you?

If you’ve put failure where it belongs (on the event, not on you) then you’ll realize that in spite of all that falling down you managed to get back up and keep going. Your life didn’t end. The world didn’t end.

And your business won’t end because of a failed social program or a lost client. So you wanted a thousand email subscribers this month and only got 10. So you wrote an ebook and the only person who bought it so far has been your mom and that creepy guy who stalks you on Twitter.

Are you going to let that be the end game for your business?

Of course not. Here’s what you’re going to do instead.

Redefine your script.

“Nobody bought my ebook” is the perfect opportunity to wonder “Why isn’t anybody buying this ebook?” Turn what you would otherwise perceive as a failure into a learning and growing opportunity. Maybe your ebook sucked. Hey, it was a good first attempt, but it might be time for a revision! Or maybe you need an alternative promotion strategy. Instead of heaving a sigh, make a new plan, set a new goal and treat it like a science experiment that will help you uncover the secrets of your success.

My friend and fellow blogger Cat Alexandra wrote a great post on learning by falling down and of course getting back up again. Stop by when you’re done here.

Just Because It Happened Before Doesn’t Mean It Won’t Happen Again

Do you sometimes feel so great about your accomplishments that you’re sure this is the thing that’s finally going to lead you down easy street? That you’ve hit the mark and things are only looking up?

Rejoice! It probably won’t last forever.

That’s not meant to be a mood killer. When things are going totally right it’s easy to sit back and bask in the glow of your awesomeness. And you should! But don’t slack. Keep trying new things, keep taking measured risks that just might lead to failure again. When you’re feeling great is when you should stay grounded and remind yourself that if something does go wrong, it doesn’t negate any of your accomplishments or those good feelings.

Take stock: are you doing well and feeling pretty smug about it now? Or can you remember a time when you were flying high and going along for the ride?

Sadly, we’ve been mostly groomed to think of failure as a bad thing. So even during our best times, bumps in the road can feel like huge potholes. We get frustrated when something interferes with our success. We drown our sorrows in buckets of Ben & Jerry’s when we don’t close deals and quickly forget the last ten we did close. We think, “Not again! I thought I finally got this right!”

Reality check: life isn’t perfect. Your Facebook strategy isn’t perfect. People will keep unsubscribing from your email list until the day you no longer have an email list. Is this a bad thing?


Are you going to fall into the complacency of thinking you’ve nailed this whole business and marketing thing, or worse, are you going to obsess about the next time something might go wrong?

No again! Here’s what you’re going to do instead.

Redefine your script.

After 13 years in business together, 15 years married, and 23 “in love” one of Ralph’s quirks has worn off on me and I want it to wear off on you, too. He has a habit of approaching everything from a misfire to a catastrophe with this sentence: “That’s interesting.” It often leads me to insist that he doesn’t quite understand the meaning of the word “interesting”. Complete database meltdown? “That’s interesting.” Lost email campaign? “That’s interesting.” Broken pipe under sink that somehow managed to bypass the water sensor and do $23,000 worth of damage to our kitchen? “That’s interesting.” If you have the right attitude, it’s all indeed very interesting! So next time you’re tempted to think of something as a misfire or a dismal failure, try, “That’s interesting” and see where it leads and what you can learn. In fact, if you stop using the word “failure” and start looking at it all as quite “interesting” then you’ll stop worrying when something goes wrong and approach it with curiosity instead.

My friend and fellow blogger Donna Merrill wrote a great post about dealing with feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Check out her coping ideas when you’re done here.

Just Because It Happened Before Doesn’t Mean It’s Going To Happen Again

Admit it: when was the last time you did a Don-the-Muppet? Is there something you’re working on and wondering if you’ll ever get it right?

Maybe you’ve only got 63 Facebook fans and you’re at your wits end trying to attract people to your page. Maybe you’re frustrated with your email open rate or conversions on your website. If you’ve been at it long enough you may feel like you’re destined to fail and it’s time to throw in the towel.

Take stock: are you tempted to give up or on the verge of giving up on an idea, plan, or worse, your business or vision entirely?

What I’ve come to realize is that failure is negotiable. Failure is a matter of choosing whether to pursue a path in spite of the horrors and obstacles, or give up. I gave up tap dancing (boring? unfulfilling?) and chose failure instead. But I haven’t quite given up the fight on the ten pounds yet.

When it comes to business and marketing there’s failure and there’s failure. Failing to make sales through Pinterest is one thing but failing to make sales is another. Keep this in mind as you fail and separate a failed strategy from a failed business. Your strategies and tactics may not be working but there are always others. There’s always a new approach.

Are you going to throw in the towel? Call it a day and get a job licking envelopes?

Pft. I insult you by asking! Of course you’re not. Here’s what you’re going to do instead.

Redefine your script.

Whenever a particular strategy fails, remind yourself that it’s all part of building up your experiences, insights, expectations and knowledge. These are steps on the path, but not the path. Just as you differentiated between thinking of yourself as a failure vs. thinking of a particular event as a failure, you should do the same for your business. “My Facebook marketing isn’t working” does not equal “My business isn’t working.” Instead of getting mired in nagging thoughts of despair, take stock of your strategies. Ask yourself whether you’re doggedly pursuing a path that simply isn’t leading anywhere and whether it might be wiser to blaze a new trail instead. Ok, so Facebook isn’t working. Is there something different you could try to fix that? Then do it. Otherwise, ditch Facebook and check out Tumblr. Remember that one failed idea, trial or project does not mean the next one will fail.

Failure is not particularly fun, especially when we have so much at stake. It’s not particularly enjoyable, especially where egos are involved.

But it can be helpful, it can be a catalyst for growth and if you approach it with the right attitude you may even find yourself becoming friends with it. I’ll repeat  what I said in the beginning: if you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried.

No matter what, keep trying.

Even if I never lose that last #&%[email protected]!!! ten pounds and die trying, I haven’t succumbed to failure. I just ran out of days to try!

Next time you want to bang your head on the piano, remember that, and move on.

Now you tell: what are you struggling with, afraid of, or putting off because it’s big and scary and might lead to a failure?