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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why the Smartest People Often Fail at Work

What’s your proudest failure?

Does that question surprise you? It’s certainly not a common one in professional circles, where our focus tends to be on quantifiable success. While achieving desirable results and succeeding matters, if we consider how failure is inextricably linked with success, it’s a bit surprising we don’t discuss it more—beyond the classic interview question, “Tell me a time you failed.”

Putting it in the context of pride is different. When you get to a point where you can feel proud of a time you failed, you stop trying to hide or minimize defeat as if it doesn’t happen to everyone. You can discuss it as a learning experience in a performance review or job interview without feeling embarrassed. Talking about failure in this way means recognizing that true growth comes with some risk.

I’m not suggesting that you embark on a project with plans of watching it go up in flames so you have a story to tell in your next job interview. I’m saying that when it happens, don’t shy away from it or try to hide it under the rug. You’re human, after all, so face your fear of failure and change the way you view the experience.

Still not convinced? Consider some of the benefits below, and how you can make the most of it when it happens:

Failure Means You’re Growing

Five years ago I attended a training workshop for career coaches led by career expert and author Dr. Katherine Brooks. She shared a sentiment that stayed with me: If you don’t occasionally have a major flop, you aren’t trying anything new, and, consequently, you’re not doing your best.

To avoid the trap of settling for what’s easy, you must push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and that means sometimes registering defeat. You may embarrass yourself or disappoint someone. Those aches and pains indicate growth. I co-led a new training on my campus recently. It wasn’t perfect, and that ate at me.

I certainly could’ve chalked it up as a failure. But you know what? It was better than some previous trainings on the same topic, and it makes us closer to an overarching goal than we were before. Plus, not only did it provide a campus benefit, but it also gave me new knowledge and experience. Had I played it safe, it would have been a loss all the way around.

Failure Means You’re Producing

Social psychologist Dean Simonton, knows a little bit about genius, having studied creative geniuses for well over two decades. He discovered that geniuses are, to put it rather simplistically, busy. They churn out lots of material, some of which leads to great success and some of which lands in the trash (fails).

Simonton points to the work of Pablo Picasso as an example in a Scientific American Mind piece, noting that Picasso created many sketches prior to the painting Guernica. Some of the sketches led nowhere while some led to further developments in finalizing the painting we know today. While not all of the sketches directly influenced the final piece, each one played an important role in the creative process. Without all of that work—even the work that didn’t directly contribute to the final painting—there would be no Guernica.

Whatever your field of expertise, to create successful work, you must first create. Period. Like Picasso, not every piece of work you produce will be an award-winning masterpiece, but much of it will help you pay the bills, progress in your career, and build your portfolio as you pursue greater and greater achievements.

With Failure Comes Insight

Failure, as painful as it can be, is an opportunity to analyze what went wrong so you can come roaring back better and stronger. Consider this example from my own experience. I’m not naturally a bossy person. A couple of years ago I was charged with chairing a committee, and I attempted to get input from the other members about our starting point and strategy. I mostly got blank looks in response. I could’ve continued with my overly-inclusive approach, and we would’ve accomplished nothing.

Instead, I recognized that my approach flopped, and I adapted. I set a meeting schedule and the agenda for the meetings, and then I began asking explicitly when I needed help with something. The committee just wrapped up a major task that we never would’ve finished if I hadn’t acknowledged that my initial approach was ineffective and adjusted accordingly.

Instead of running or hiding when something goes awry, dive in to figure out how you can improve. What did you learn about the process? The people involved? Yourself? How can you use this awareness to improve? To take things even further, consider seeking feedback from others who can help you consider improvements not on your radar.

Not every failure will be a biggie or result in profound insight that turns into tremendous success. That’s fine. Use those unremarkable fails as a chance to remember that you’re an imperfect human.

Before you go too far down the road of, “But wait—perfection is necessary! I don’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who’s only successful 80% of the time,” let me say that I agree. There are certainly situations where there is little to no margin for error. But consider this: Where did that surgeon’s knowledge come from?

The advancements we enjoy today come from a long line of trial and error, success and failure. So yes, on the operating table you must be 100%. But if we hold that standard to all people all the time, we stop advancing. See the difference?

You’re not operating 100% of the time, so stop acting like it and allow me to ask again, what is your proudest failure? If you don’t have an answer, you have some work to do. When you fear it, it becomes your master, sapping your energy and creativity. When you can look back on defeat with pride because it played an important role in making you the badass you are today, you become unstoppable.

Photo of woman courtesy of Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images.