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How to Handle Failure So It Helps You

How to handle failure so it helps you

Handling failure is tough. Most of us struggle with figuring out how to approach it.

Basically, we’d rather just succeed.

But recovery from failure is so important. Chances are, most of us don’t think about it nearly enough.

Think about what’s at stake.

If you don’t handle failure well, it can lead to



self pity

and even cause you to quit when you didn’t need to.

When I was in my early twenties, I had an encounter with failure that helped me decide how I was going to handle moving forward. First the story, then the principles I learned from it.

I was working as a law student at a downtown Toronto firm. I was in court almost every day.

This particular day I was working for one of the firm’s partners, I’ll call him James.

James had a reputation for being brutal on students (and other lawyers for that matter). One of his ‘sports’ was to wander down the hall in the afternoon and announce to anyone listening that he was going to ‘ream out’ lawyer X. He would then wander into lawyer X’s office and berate him for five minutes, often loudly enough for everyone to overhear. For him it was recreational.

On the day in question, I lost the case I was arguing. James’ case. As I came back into the office, the other lawyers and secretaries asked me how I did. When I told them I lost, they said “Well, James is going to kill you.”

Not knowing quite how to respond, I knocked on James’ door.

He looked up and asked, gruffly, “Well, how did it go?”

I told him. “James, I lost.”

But then I did something I hadn’t done before. I didn’t stop there.

“And I take full responsibility for it. Clearly I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I let you down and I let the client down. I should have done better and I realize this is unacceptable. I apologize and I promise you I won’t let it happen again. I’m sorry James.”

At that point I braced for the tongue-lashing.

Instead, he looked confused.

Then he looked up and said “Well, all right then. Have a good day.”

And that was it.

While I avoided ‘punishment’, I learned a huge lesson that day in how to handle failure.

I haven’t forgotten it.

Here are five principles I’ve pulled out of that moment that I’ve tried to follow since.

1. Tell the Truth. Don’t try to sugar coat the problem. When I told James I had blown the case, it disarmed him. I guess he had seen student after student (and lawyer after lawyer) come in and try to spin events in their favour. If you stop spinning the truth,  you’ll discover that honesty is where learning and progress begin.

2. Assume Full Responsibility. Sure, other people or factors had a role in your mistake. The traffic lights all turned red on you. Your colleague didn’t get you the information on time. The judge was in a bad mood. Big deal. Grow up. What did you mess up? Stop blaming. (Blame only ever looks attractive to the blamer.) Take all the responsibility you can. Talk about how you fell short. Talk about the part of the problem you own. Taking responsibility is a sign of maturity.

3. Learn Big. Use your mistakes as a chance to grow. Get curious about your failure. What did you learn? What could you have done differently? Who’s overcoming these problems? What can you learn from them? Who can you talk to about this? How can you grow? How will this make you better?

4. Report Your Findings. Once you’ve started learning and changing, sometimes it can be a good idea to talk about it. In an employment setting, at your next meeting tell your boss what you learned from the failure and how you’re handling things now. At home, tell your spouse (or your kids). Talk about it with a friend or mentor. People love to see progress in other people. In fact, at work that might just earn you a promotion. People who are honest about their shortcomings and sincerely want to grow are a rare find.

5. Celebrate Progress. You will always be working on problems, but hopefully they will be different ones each year. Celebrate your progress. Give thanks for the change you see.

Interestingly enough, all of this is related to the Christian disciplines of confession and repentance. Assuming responsibility for your mistakes is actually a part of your spiritual growth.

What are you learning about failure? What’s helping you?

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  • Ellen Pullen

    Thanks once again for giving us incredible advice. You have NO idea how perfect this message is for our family. We take your messages and use them in our parenting. Our kids think we are pretty wise parents ☺

  • cnieuwhof

    Self destruction…aptly put. Thanks for all the encouragement. And right now, Haupi, books two and three on change are slated for release in April 2014 and April 2015 respectively.

  • Haupi Tombing

    Great post, Carey. Indeed we all fail at one time or another. There are things about ourselves and situations that only failure can teach us. The choice we make to do the 5 things you mentioned above makes the the failure redemptive. Keep posting. By the way, just finished reading your book. Loved it. When’s the second one coming out?

  • Michael Moffitt CPA

    Carey: Great story and most relevant to today. I am in business full time and it seems NO ONE will stand up and take responsibility for their own actions.

  • Great story! It’s amazing how often we shy away from telling the truth and accepting responsibility for our actions. I’m learning that no failure is ever final. There will always be tomorrow and a chance to try again.

  • “If you don’t handle failure well, it can lead to”……..self-destruction, basically.
    Very good article. Keep up the great work.

  • “If you don’t handle failure well, it can lead to”……..self-destruction, basically.
    Very good article. Keep up the great work.