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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Moving Forward: How to Overcome a Career Failure

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In my short five years in the workforce, I have practiced law, blogged, freelanced, and assisted with a startup—and now, due to my company’s relocation, I am repositioning myself in the ever-changing New York City job market.  Throughout it all, I have tested the wide array of career waters, and I found that while some were warm and welcoming, others felt violent and unmanageable.

I encountered one particularly rough sea when I attempted my first foray into authorship in the fall of 2010, when I spent months meticulously crafting a book proposal on the food trucks of Manhattan. I poured my heart into my masterpiece, which was replete with professional photographs, recipes, and stories about the trucks’ owners. And as I shipped my proposal out to a variety of publishing houses, I was convinced that I was on the verge of making it as the next big food author and blogger.

Cut to today: I’m writing this article from a desk where I am decidedly not working as a food writer, turning down invitations to Carbone’s grand opening—because, after submitting my proposal, I let the negative feedback and blatant rejection of my literary baby turn me away from the world of food writing altogether.

But through this failure, I learned valuable lessons that I still carry with me on both a personal and professional level. So, if you’ve recently experienced a career “setback” (the gentler term for what can feel like a total and utter failure), learn from my experience. Here are a few ways that you can look at your situation through a more positive lens.

1. Don’t Let a Failure Break You  

In both your career and personal life, it can be easy to focus on the negative events, while letting the positive ones roll off your back (“I know I just landed a new client, but I totally flubbed my presentation to them this morning—they must think I’m terrible!”). And because of that tendency, it can feel natural to let one single failure completely redefine your career path or project.

I definitely fell prey to this mentality. Instead of remembering that putting together a fully-fleshed out book proposal was an accomplishment in itself, I focused on the fact that I had been rejected. And as a result, I all but abandoned my passion for culinary authorship, branding it as a pipe dream.

Looking back, I realize that I could have changed my approach and pressed on in my efforts to take the food writing world by storm. If I’d been able to deal with even some of the criticism I faced, I may have had the confidence to continue to pursue food writing in some form. For instance, I could have become a food blogger (I’m thinking the Smitten Kitchen of the mobile food world) or peddled my proposal to an e-book publisher. I could have attempted to make more connections in the literary or culinary worlds to find a solid source of advice or even a potential mentor.

Whenever you face a setback, try to consider the positive in your situation. For example, if you took a risk and failed, at least you took the risk in the first place! It may not have gone as planned, but you don’t have to let one mistake, failure, or piece of negative feedback steer you from your ultimate goal.

2. Revisit Your Failure With New Eyes  

Fresh off a rejection or career embarrassment, it’s hard to objectively analyze the situation at hand. When I received my 12th publisher’s rejection (which felt like my 100th), I experienced such heartache and discouragement that I became unable—and unwilling—to reevaluate my book proposal and determine a new plan of attack. Instead, I accepted what the publishers had told me—my book was destined for failure.

But, I could have handled it differently, as I learned from a now-successful author friend of mine who faced a similar setback. “After my publisher savaged my first draft, I was a mess,” she recalls. “So, I took a week away from thinking about the book and immersed myself in activities that made me feel worthy. After that rejuvenating period, I was able to take my editor’s comments and embrace them on a professional level.”

Challenge, growth, and even failure is always required in order to move ahead and achieve a goal, but that’s really tough to remember when you’re feeling defeated. So, give yourself a little space from an initial setback, allow your emotions to cool, and let your rational side regain control. Then, you can look at your situation with new eyes and determine how to proceed.

3. Learn From Those Who Survived

Almost every successful professional has overcome a misstep of some sort, from Steve Jobs (the NeXT Computer, anyone?) to Jennifer Lopez (hello, Gigli!). But for most of them, what once seemed like massive, career-ruining failures have now been almost completely forgotten—surpassed by great successes.

So, when you experience your own career slipup, it’s helpful to speak with someone who can share some wisdom on how he or she faced a setback and emerged stronger on the other side. I wish I had reached out to one of my creative friends in the startup space (we know they’re no strangers to initial missteps) and asked what she would do in my position.  I imagine she would have advised me to pursue social media outlets to gain publicity for my burgeoning project or figure out some unorthodox path for distributing my hard work.

Feedback from a passionate, determined friend not only helps you to refocus on your ultimate goal, but it can also help you effectively deal with your feelings of defeat (and remind you that you’re not the only one who’s ever felt this way). You can see how others have embraced their negative experiences and turned them into positive ones—and use their methods to do the same.

4. Remember Acceptance is Key

Accepting your failure doesn’t mean being proud of it, cursing the universe for your “bad luck,” or admitting to yourself that you suck and should give up. True acceptance is understanding that you hit a roadblock and now need to figure a way around it—by shaking off the negative feedback, absorbing constructive criticism, and plowing ahead in an innovative, exciting way.

You may never become the next Woz—or in my case, the next Giada—but when you’re able to accept and face your failures head-on, you’ll avoid any career regrets. You’ll learn to stop internalizing the negative in a way that prevents you from pursuing your dream, and you’ll be more at peace with your efforts and decisions.< /p>

While I can’t say that I enjoy reminiscing about the numerous rejection letters I received on my book proposal, I am truly thankful for what the experience taught me about navigating the harsh, choppy waters of a new career path. Handling failure, rejection, or disappointment in a productive way can be as beneficial to career development as a huge accomplishment—it’s all about how you set your sails in the unpredictable seas of the professional world.