Turning Your Failures into Learning Opportunities

I’m going to let you in on a little secret here…  I, AJ Kumar – the fearless leader you’ve all come to know and trust – have failed in business.  In fact, I’ve failed so often that I sometimes cringe when I think about some of the opportunities I had and blew (if you want to hear some of the dirty details, check out my recent Mixergy interview).

But as frustrating as those challenges were, I also know that I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today if I hadn’t failed along the way.  In many ways, the failures I’ve had have been just as important as my successes – even if they were a lot less fun to deal with.

The secret to coping with your failures isn’t to avoid them at all costs (especially since this is pretty much impossible!).  Instead, what you need to do is to learn how to turn these letdowns into lessons.  That way, you haven’t really failed at all – you’ve actually succeeded at learning something new.

With that in mind, here’s the four-step process I use to turn my failures into learning opportunities:

Step #1 – Give yourself a grieving period

Failing sucks.  It’s miserable to know that your once-brilliant sounding idea isn’t going to turn into the tremendous success you envisioned – especially if you had tons of time or money invested in your plan.

But instead of trying to sweep this disappointment under the rug in order to move forward as quickly as possible, give yourself some time to come to terms with your failure.  Take a few days to eat ice cream by the pint, watch trashy movies, get drunk, cry or do whatever else you need to do to accept that your failure happened.

Just be sure to put a time limit on things.  Wallowing for a small amount of time can be a helpful coping mechanism, but wallowing forever only traps you within the failure.  As soon as you can start thinking about your mistakes without becoming overly emotional, put your sadness aside and move forward with the next steps in the process.

Step #2 – Identify failure points

Now that you’re able to look at your failure in a more rational way, try to identify exactly what went wrong.  For example:

  • Did you miss critical market information that would have indicated your product or service wasn’t a good fit for your target customers?
  • Was your offering priced too high for your market?
  • Were you unable to differentiate yourself effectively from your competitors?

Don’t pussy-foot around the fact that you might have been the problem as well.  If you didn’t have the education or skill set needed to make your idea successful, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Recognize the role that you played in the failure instead of placing blame inappropriately on external factors.

Step #3 – See what’s worth salvaging

After identifying the failure points that led to your idea’s downfall, go back through the process with a fresh set of eyes to see if there’s anything worth salvaging from your mistakes.  You might be surprised at some of the unexpected opportunities that this will turn up.

As an example, if your product wasn’t a good fit for your target market, are there economical ways that you could retool it in order to compensate for its perceived flaws?  Are there any additional features or services you could have added to offer a clearer value proposition to prospective customers?

Or, if it turns out that your own shortcomings led to your business failure, can you remedy these things?  If, for example, you pursued the necessary education or brought on a partner who could compensate for your weaknesses, might you have a more viable business plan?

Unfortunately, some failures won’t have anything that’s worth salvaging.  That’s okay too.  However, you must go through this process in order to eliminate all doubt – otherwise, you’ll always regret what “could have been” if you’d simply persevered with an idea that failed initially.

Step #4 – Let it go and move forward

Once you’ve completed this process, you should have a good idea of why your project failed, what specific factors contributed to its collapse and whether or not it’s worth pursuing future action.  This process gives you a clear jumping off point to either improve your idea or start a new project – so take it!

The people who truly fail are the ones who fail to let go of their failures.  I’m not saying it’s easy, but really, the last thing you want to be is that old guy at the gym who claims he “could have been someone” if he’d just followed through on his vision.  Wrap up failures in a way that works for you, but then take what you’ve learned and move forward.  Eventually, you’ll find success.

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  1. Pingback: Learning to Own Up to Your Mistakes

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