How Really Successful People Handle Failure

Dec 22, 2014
7 Min Read

It's easy to overlook the many failures that successful people have experienced. Without failure, they say, they wouldn't have achieved their dreams. A look at what you can learn from people like Maya Angelou and Babe Ruth when it comes to setbacks.

There are several things in your career that are fairly well guaranteed:  At some point you will work  for an idiot; you will be convinced human resources is populated by Death Eaters; and you will experience failure.

While an idiot boss and the followers of Lord Voldemort can be worrisome, it will be failure that will truly test your path toward greatness.

That’s why it can be helpful to look at how the truly successful view their failures and overcame them:

  • Learn from criticism. Best-selling author John Grisham had “The Firm” rejected by 28 publishers before being accepted by unknown publisher Wynwood Press, which printed 5,000 copies in 1989. The book later sat on top of the New York Times’ bestseller list for 47 weeks and was the bestselling novel of 1991. But to this day Grisham will often throw away many efforts when penning another book. “When my wife or my agent mark my stuff up, I want to punch them in the nose. But the problem is, usually they’re right,” Grisham said.
  • Keep hope alive. Musician Jewel lived in her car and went hungry while traveling around the country doing small gigs. “It was really hard for me to ever think that I was special when I was homeless,” she said. “But people helped me. They didn’t know me. They didn’t owe me anything. They would just give me food. They’d give me $5 for food. That not only helped feed me but it gave me hope.” Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the retail chain, was told by his dry-goods store manager that “he didn’t have enough common sense to serve customers.” Noted Woolworth: “Dreams never hurt anybody if he keeps working right behind the dream to make as much of it come real as he can.”
  • Never stop growing. Soichoro Honda was rejected as an engineer for Toyota Motor Corp. Without work, he started making scooters in his own home. Encouraged by his neighbors, he finally started his own business, which is now the billion-dollar company known as Honda. “Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure,” Honda said.
  • Take your best swing.  You may be tempted to give only a half-hearted effort if you continually fall short of your goal, believing that success just isn’t in the cards for you. But baseball great Babe Ruth not only had 714 home runs during his career, but 1,330 strikeouts. “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run,” he said.
  • Be ready to dig deep. Maya Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was mute for nearly five years after a childhood trauma. She later found her voice, and had several jobs including fry cook, and a nightclub dancer and performer. “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated,” she said. “In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

When struggling with failures, it’s also helpful to know that research from the University of Kent  finds that “positive reframing” can make a difference. Simply by trying to see things in a more positive light or looking for something good in a setback can help you  feel more satisfied by the end of the day.

The study also found that other successful strategies that helped people feel better about failure included acceptance and humor. What didn’t work? Getting support from others socially, using denial, venting or self-blame, researchers said.

Dr. Joachim Stoeber, one of the researchers and an expert on motivation and performance, advises that anyone who experiences what they believe to be a failure would be best served by focusing on what they achieved, rather than what they didn’t achieve.

“'It's no use ruminating about small failures and setbacks and drag yourself further down,” he said. “Instead it is more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and -- if it is a small thing -- have a laugh about it.”

What successful people have inspired you to keep working despite failure?

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