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“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown,” claims Ross Perot. The former Texarkana, Texas paperboy founded one of history’s most valuable technology companies at age 32 (EDS) and ran for President of the United States in 1992 and 1996. The idea of a computer utility was so novel that potential customers rejected EDS proposals 77 times before signing its first contract.
Perot’s entrepreneurial experience was not unique. Most people who chase dreams run into obstacles (i.e., failures) along the way:
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and one of the wealthiest people in the world today, needed three years to pass his college entrance exams. After college, his employment search was equally frustrating, being rejected by Kentucky Fired Chicken and the local police force.
Successful entrepreneurs often claim that the impetus for their success was their mistakes as they struggled to reach the end goal. They claim they would never have learned the lessons integral to their success without mistakes, whether in business, financial, athletic or life in general.
Associating failure with fault
From an early age, we learn to think negatively about failure. Failing is often considered a judgment of one’s capability, energy or diligence and is always avoidable (or so we think). When failure happens, the tendency is to find fault, someone to blame. Think of the kid who didn’t study for an exam, failed in correlation to the lack of preparation, yet blamed his peer sitting next to him as he coughed once or twice, causing a brief distraction. As children, we learn that admitting failure means taking the blame. In cases where the failure’s cause is unknown, “scapegoats” — a person or group made to bear the responsibility for others or to suffer in their place — have been utilized for thousands of years. We often fail to realize that “blaming” is a substitute for learning, avoiding analysis to understand real cause and effect.
According to the Harvard Business Review, failure is not always bad. Sometimes it’s inevitable, and sometimes it’s even good. Failure is only bad when its outcome is giving up. Success rarely occurs with first attempts. Babies learn to walk after hundreds of falls.
Great musicians spend thousands of hours practicing intricate passages before getting them right. Great authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling get hundreds of rejection letters from publishers before their first books. Henry Ford’s first auto company — the Detroit Automotive Company — failed and was dissolved before founding Ford Motor Company. His competitor, Henry C. Durant, was forced from the company he founded (General Motors), due to a cash shortage before winning control again in 1916. Stories of people who suffered devastating failure before achieving great success fill the history books.
Persistence — what many call “resilience” — is a powerful force and within the capability of everyone with determination and effort. The origin of the phrase “Keep on keeping on” is unknown but has been the anthem of people struggling with adversity since the Civil War. Its message remains just as valid today as it was back then.
Admitting failure can be difficult, but it is necessary for growth and progress. Practice these five steps to overcome failure and get back into the game:
1. Accept that failure is part of progress
The future is unknown, and failures are inevitable. No one likes to fail, as we often judge ourselves when it transpires. Failure can be very personal if we fixate on the result rather than the possible cause. Failure is often the result of regularly occurring events outside one’s control, unintended mistakes of omission and commission, and perceptions are often superficial and misleading. Avoid the temptation of self-blame by recognizing that failure is simply a step in the journey to success.
2. Recognize disappointment and recharge
Failure usually precipitates disappointment and self-doubt. Failure hurts, because we treat it as a judgment of ourselves. Ignoring such feelings is a mistake. When you care about an outcome, failure naturally triggers emotions of regret, sorrow, and even anger. When the negative emotions overwhelm you, give yourself a break. Failure is a situation, not a judgment. It is an opportunity for a new start and a chance to take another path.
3. Analyze cause and effect without blame
Look at the event to see what happened. What worked? What didn’t work? Delve into each of the potential causes and their effect on the outcome. Go beyond the obvious and superficial reasons to understand the root causes of failure, avoiding the temptation of easy answers or blame. Some factors will be insignificant, while others may have had enormous effects. What are the underlying factors that affect the causes of failure? If failure is due to a mistake on someone’s part, what was the cause of the error? Errors by an individual can occur for several reasons, including poor training, poor delegation or direction, inadequate tools or equipment, or wrong incentives. Acting without understanding the underlying cause and effect is likely to end in a second failure.
4. Revise and reframe your plan
By understanding the cause of failure, you can create a plan of action that minimizes, avoids, or overcomes the known obstacles to success. In life, what you do after a setback is more important than your original action. In your planning, recognize your vulnerabilities and acknowledge your strengths. Look back at your choices, and redirect new decisions for a better outcome. The opportunity to make new choices is the power to change your future for the better.
5. Move forward with a positive attitude
Henry Ford reputedly said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this [second] time more intelligently.” The past is over, and one can do nothing to change it. If you continue looking in the rear view mirror, you will undoubtedly crash. Focus on what lies ahead and the future (of which will most certainly be full of abundance). We only control what we do today — the here and now — and hope that the future works out as planned. Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, recommends a new paradigm for those seeking success: Failure is inevitable in today’s complex work and social environments. “Those that catch, correct, and learn from failure before others do will succeed. Those that wallow in the blame game will not.”