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11 People Share What They Learned From Epic Career Failures

New research suggests that opening up about our failures can make us happier.

We love talking about success in our careers, but today we want to talk about failure. The New York Times recently covered research that suggests that talking about our failures can help cultivate closer relationships with colleagues. And in a recent working paper from Harvard Business School, researchers explain that by opening up about failure with your colleagues, you can avoid co-worker envy and even find happiness in your transparency.

That’s why we asked Thrive Global’s contributor community — who have previously shared their insights about what to do when you disagree with a boss and what they’ve given up for success — to reveal the career failures that have shaped them. We all slip up on the job, but we wanted to know about one failure that had a lasting impact on people’s work trajectories. Here are some stories that inspired us to get back up after a fall:

“Always check references.”

“My biggest failure was putting so much trust in a business connection that I didn’t feel the need to check references when he asked to come on as a partner in my company. It was only after the fact, when my business account was overdrawn and he was charged with embezzlement, that I learned the value of following up with references. One email to his former organization, and I learned he had dealt with them in a similar way! Now I check references deeply before I hire a person or bring on a new partner. It feels like a lot of work, but you learn a lot.”

–Lauren Coles, founder & CEO, New York, NY

“Figure out how and why this happened.”

“I was one of the pharmacists involved in a medication error years ago by selecting the wrong drug for a patient. I failed so miserably that day. It was my supervisor’s job to review any medication incidents with each pharmacist. She didn’t give me a hard time. But I had to internalize what had happened, needed to go back to the exact moment of when the error occurred and figured out why and how I made this error. Without doing this honestly in my head, I wouldn’t know why I made that error. So taking our errors personally is important. But once the lesson is learned, it would be wise to move on and don’t take it personally anymore.”

–Cynthia Leung, pharmacist, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

“Seek clarity.”

“Getting fired from a previous job taught me one of life’s biggest lessons: Seek clarity. I was assigned a critical project which required that I immediately hit the ground running. I spent countless hours behind the scenes researching and trying to figure things out on my own, just to prove myself. But that didn’t cut it. My quietness and busyness were misinterpreted as lack of confidence. And that was it! I was let go. I’ve come to accept that I can’t be the expert at everything. I leverage those around me with more experience and this creates a synergy that ultimately leads to even bigger successes.”

–Busola Oghumu, career confidence strategist, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

“Sometimes you need to give yourself permission to dream bigger.”

“I created a Canadian parenting magazine that was reaching audiences that were not in Canada, but instead of addressing this, I continued to try to connect with Canadian businesses and experts. When that wasn’t getting the results I wanted, I rebranded into the first global online parenting magazine, addressing my dynamic diverse audience and reaching out to experts and businesses around the world. I met wonderful friends, connected with inspiring people, and 5 years later, I haven’t looked back. Sometimes it’s about giving yourself permission to dream a little bigger.”

–Grace Cross, magazine owner and editor, Canada

“Transparency is key.”

“I failed at work by not being more transparent in my communications with my manager to keep her abreast of my daily activities. I have a very autonomous job which allows me to be very flexible and creative. My manager knew I was very reliable, but my failure was to simply communicate my new initiatives. I learned that transparency is key to building working relationships and upleveling my career.”

–Breshana Miller, online brand strategist, Washington DC

“Make sure people know about your efforts.”

“I led a team to create a youth film festival, showcasing youth-created film shorts. The night of the event, I saw only a fourth of the theater was full. It was a triumph and a failure at the same time. From that moment, we vowed to continue, but to also focus on publicity to ensure those seats were full. I learned that failure can clarify what’s needed most and even propel you forward.”

–Julie Neale, founder, community builder and coach, San Francisco, CA

“Focus on the skills you’re learning, not the title.”

“I accepted a vice president position at work, but six months in, it was clear I was not prepared for my responsibilities, so I chose a demotion instead of an exit. I knew this was a career-changing learning opportunity and critical to my professional and personal development. If I didn’t learn it then, I would have to learn it down the road with different people. So, I bravely confronted it head on, and it worked. That experience pays off even today. Now I counsel business leaders on emotional intelligence in the workplace and I couldn’t be happier.”

–Meghan E. Butler, communications consultant, Austin, TX

“Even if you bomb, it’s not the end of your career.”

“I got an amazing opportunity to go on tour with a guitar rock legend as an electric violinist. I went in confident but completely bombed the audition. I walked out with my tail between my legs convinced that I had choked under pressure. As embarrassing as that failure was, I frequently tell people about it because what I learned from the experience was that even massive failures aren’t the end of our careers. What matters far more is how you positively reboot yourself. Lots of people fail. Successful people fail, learn and reboot. That’s what my epic audition failure taught me.”

–James Sudakow, business consulting, San Diego, CA

“Confirm the important details.”

“When I first started in PR, I was assigned to book a venue for a celebrity basketball game, and on the big day, I realized the contact I had spoken to for securing the venue had screwed up the deal, so the venue had no knowledge of our event in their books. I took the blame and got fired. It definitely taught me about accountability and to make sure I dot my i’s and cross my t’s; and that failure doesn’t mean the end.”

–Octavia Bostick, hospitality, Seattle, WA

“Building relationships is critical.”

“My task was to organize an event for 100 community leaders. I sent out emails and had fliers distributed. Five people showed up, and I realized that not cultivating relationships led to failure. I didn’t invest time in making calls, sharing the stories of people impacted or arranging one-on-one meetings before asking for something. I learned that relationships are critical to success, people are drawn to the power of a compelling story, and that people buy in to people instead of programs.”

–Romal Tune, strategic partnerships, Atlanta, GA

“You must listen to other perspectives.”

“I’ve been doing mental performance coaching for about 15 years now. Early on in my career I was working with a collegiate basketball player and I thought things were going well until she stopped coming to our meetings. I ran into her one day on campus and decided to ask her what was going on. She hesitated, but then decided to let me know that while she thought she had benefited from our meetings, I was making her think too much out on the court. I could have walked away thinking that she just didn’t understand what mental training entails, but instead I realized that I had failed her. I learned the goal should always be to learn and get better, and we can’t always do that on our own from our own vantage point.”

–Lauren S. Tashman, sport and performance psychology, New York, NY

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