At a glance
“Do not be embarrassed by your failures – learn from them and start again.”
So said Richard Branson, the UK billionaire and entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about failure, with ill-fated endeavours such as Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars and Virgin Brides to his name.
Branson, an irrepressible optimist, also said, “Business opportunities are like buses – there’s always another one coming.”
As painful and bruising to the ego as it can be, failure is a valuable learning experience.
According to Dr Rachael Sharman, psychology senior lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, “Failure is critical in teaching you something about yourself and teaching you something about the environment, the world, or the organisation you’re working in.
“When we look at some of our top athletes, and no doubt some of the top business performers and CEOs, the point of failure is not the fact that you failed – it’s ‘What did you learn from it?’ and ‘How did you come back from it?’”
A springboard for growth
A career failure – such as being passed over for promotion or an unsuccessful job application – can serve as a catalyst for an honest reappraisal of where you are and where you want to go.
Ask yourself, “What did I do wrong here? How did I contribute to this?” says Sharman.
“If it turns out that the failure is because you’re just catastrophically awful at something, look at what you can do differently or channel your energies into something more suited to your skill set.”
After undertaking a self-audit, many people decide they need a change of direction in the form of an entirely new career path or a role that better aligns with their values.
“If you’re working in a senior finance role in a [for-]profit organisation, you might transfer those skills into a non-profit organisation or a charity,” says Warren Frehse, senior adviser in careers and employability at the University of Melbourne.
“It still enables you to use your financial background but in a sector that is more meaningful to you.”
If you’re dealing with unemployment, invest spare time outside of job-hunting into a project or volunteering.
When organisational psychologist and executive coach Dr Michelle Pizer quit her corporate job with no job to go to – something she has done three times in her working life – she signed up to do volunteer counselling.
When she returned to work, it was in an entirely different field – teaching life skills to people with intellectual disabilities living in transitional housing.
“It was a huge awakening for me and a great experience,” Pizer says.
How to overcome failure
First, work through your initial emotional response to the bad news.
“It’s alright to have a cry or a vent,” says Sharman, “but at some point, you’ve got to move on.”
When you’re ready, turn to your network for support.
“It’s important to maintain and grow your network while you’re working rather than trying to do that at the time when something goes wrong,” says Frehse.
Debrief with friends and family after a difficult experience, but make sure you also seek the perspectives of people outside your direct circle.
Talk to former colleagues about your strengths – and weaknesses – and consider their feedback when conducting any self-assessment.
A career coach can be particularly helpful, says Frehse. “A coach has the skill set to guide you through some self-reflection and help you through the job search process.”
Pizer knows first-hand the value of a strong network in a crisis. The first time she was made redundant, she was just eight months out of university. She called her favourite lecturer, who immediately offered her assistance.
“I had a job the next day,” she says. “The next time I was made redundant, I called her again. She was so helpful and got me an interview at EY – and I got the job.”
A time for reinvention
Exposure to low-stakes failure when young can help prepare us to deal with disappointment as adults, says Sharman, who is concerned that overprotective parents today tend to remove their children’s chance to fail on their own terms.
“If you’ve never learned how to deal with failure constructively and experience your first big failure at 40, you won’t go so well,” Sharman says.
“But if you’ve had a series of failures at four, 14, 24, you’ve built up resilience and developed strategies to really look at that failure and do something constructive with it.”
Pizer believes dealing with failure becomes easier with age, provided you remain adaptable in the face of change.
“I think you get better at it,” Pizer says. With the benefit of experience and maturity, “you learn to trust yourself – that you will survive and be OK”.
A late-career pivot can be a daunting prospect – but also an exciting one.
“I’ve done that myself,” says Pizer, who had to “reinvent” herself, pivoting from counselling to coaching remote clients after a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 49 took her out of the workforce for several years.
“It makes for a more interesting and stimulating career.”