There might be no better representation of failure than when a project you’ve been working on explodes spectacularly in front of an audience of thousands. When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk does it — like his company arguably did at the very tail end of its Starship prototype launch on Wednesday — the agony of failure is made tactile in towers of flame and clouds of burning shrapnel live-streaming around the world.
Musk is a billionaire industrialist and brash public figure who is famous for his resounding success in multiple industries. And yet he still fails often, occasionally even seeing his ambitions of constructing rockets that will ferry humans to Mars literally going up in flames.
He isn’t the only successful magnate or icon to occasionally wallow in the pits of failure. Thomas Edison is renowned for acknowledging his close relationship with failure; for years, J.D. Salinger’s literary genius went unsung as his short stories were continuously rejected by the New Yorker; Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school’s varsity basketball team on his first attempt.
We needn’t always take cues from the endeavours of wealthy tycoons — especially those with reputations as checkered as Musk’s — or from visionary inventors or legendary athletes. There is a lesson to be learned from the stumbling blocks overcome by the immensely successful as well as the anonymous. Failure stalks us all, no matter how many triumphs we relish over the course of a lifetime. But failure can be instructive. There are often important lessons, if not glimmers of success, within our failures — consider the fact that before it exploded, that SpaceX rocket did something unprecedented — but appreciating that fact means rethinking the very concept of what it means to fail.
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Failure is a constant, so don’t dwell on it
Familiar cliches about failure abound no matter the context, but especially in work. The notion of “failing early and often” exists for the encouragement of younger workers struggling to gain a foothold in their jobs. “Embracing failure” applies readily to entrepreneurs, who take gambles in their early attempts to build something with staying power. The suggestion is your embrace of failure should be a momentary stepping stone toward an idealised notion of enduring success.
But in life, things are rarely quite so cut and dried. According to Ross McCammon, the author of the corporate etiquette guide Works Well With Others, success comes in tandem with failure more often than you might expect. As he tells it, however, this is actually a good thing — if failure can be interpreted as an actionable dilemma.
“Failure isn’t a dead thing,” he tells Lifehacker. “It’s a living thing, and you can pull energy from it. But the longer you wait to think about it, the more calcified it gets. And then it’s just a big dead thing that happened, instead of a vital part of your present and future.”
A mindful approach is key to recognising how missteps can help you in the near and longterm. McCammon emphasises a more proactive approach, in which you recognise failures as they come and discuss them honestly with colleagues and bosses.
Recognising success within failure is best done immediately after you’ve recognised what’s happening as failure. Or maybe even during. I think fail early and fail often works as a philosophy as long as you’re also assessing early and assessing often and making your assessments known to your colleagues and even your boss.
Not everyone has the luxury of such accommodating workplaces and congenial, understanding bosses and colleagues. But you can avoid the black cloud of failure within your own mind by broadening your perspective about what it means to fail.
Accept that your career won’t be linear
“I’ve been let go from almost every job I’ve had due to budgets or downsizing,” says Sean Abrams, an editor at the website Ask Men. As a 29-year-old Millennial writer, Abrams is no stranger to the upheaval affecting the digital media industry, not to mention the flux pervading the broader labour market since the 2008 Great Recession. For those in his position, failure is often born of circumstances beyond their control — an acknowledgement of which can provide valuable perspective.
“Sometimes the factors that led to your failure actually don’t have much to do with you at all. You just got the short end of the stick,” Abrams says.
Labelling an unsuccessful venture a failure is too reductive to have much instructive value. McCammon suggests we, “reject the idea of phases like failure and success, and play a longer game,” in which we accept that the arcs of our careers will be anything but predictible.
He tells Lifehacker:
As we are moving through our career, we think of it first as a kind of line and a line that should be going up at all times. Of course, that’s not what happens. It doesn’t always go up and sometimes it goes to the side and loops over itself. Maybe you tried a new career for a few years, maybe you were unemployed for a time. Careers aren’t linear. And I think that’s a helpful context for assessing failure.
One way to reframe failure, especially in a culture that so excessively lionizes the successful, is to think of it in less severe terms. Rather than dwelling on the drastic consequences of a perceived failure, think of setbacks as instructive mistakes instead. Mistakes are normal and excusable, and they happen with regularity. People who make mistakes aren’t usually defined by them — and McCammon thinks you should own yours unapologetically:
“What any successful person — young or old — is good at is making mistakes unapologetically… you could argue that a career is just a series of mistakes that you navigate and turn into successes.”
With that frame of mind, finding success within your purported failures won’t be hard at all.