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How to Conquer the Three Stages of Failure in Business

We are human when we fail.

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash

Alison Wood Brooks, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, wants you to start talking about your failures.

This is not an easy topic for anyone to open up about, especially entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are taught to “fake it till you make it” in business. Our collective society also exists in a time where social media is a largely curated thing. We are much less likely to share statuses about ourselves at our low points. We try to avoid publicly discussing bad days and hard times. It
is easier to pretend everything is beautiful and going amazing. That’s the kind
of content that automatically gets a lot of likes, new followers, and
compliments.

Failure, on the other hand, is complicated. It’s messy, vulnerable, and full of unpleasant emotions. We try to keep it hidden when in actuality we should be speaking up. Brooks shares in an article with The New York Times that when we discuss our failures with humility and authenticity, it makes us much more relatable to others. We are human when we fail, and we are learning as well.

Consider these three stages in business where an entrepreneur has the potential to fail. That failure may be accidental or completely blindside you, but it’s generally pretty embarrassing when it happens. You might even wonder how you’ll be able to recover from what happened in the long run. Let’s take a closer look at how these stages can actually allow for improvement.

1. Stage one: making simple mistakes.

Maybe you called someone by the wrong name or CC’d instead of BCC’d an entire mailing list. These are the kinds of mistakes that can make you feel like running home and hiding under the covers. The best thing to do is understand that it’s not the end of the world. Apologize for the mistake made and move on. 

You might even be able to make a lighthearted joke about it, depending on the situation. Maybe the error was brought on by having a case of the Mondays or needing a second cup of coffee.

2. Stage two: flopping on a major assignment or presentation.

You spent hours working on a major presentation for a potential partnership or crafting a marketing campaign that would drive new followers to your social media platforms. Everything gets approved, the wheels are put into motion, and… Nothing happens. The initiative is a flop instead of a hit.

What now? You may feel as though you are to blame for its failure — and this may be true. Own up to the mistakes made if a project you spearheaded failed. Use the failure as a learning experience. What factors led to what went wrong? Although pinpointing these areas does not guarantee you’ll be 100% successful next time, the trial and error aspect will keep you from making similar mistakes.

3. Stage three: the unexpected.

This is the absolute worst side of failure because you cannot predict it. You might have lost a valued client or partner for reasons beyond your control. Or, you might have had to make the difficult decision to dissolve your business after years of continual financial hardships and setbacks.

Unexpected situations leave us blaming ourselves for what happened. We wish we could go back and make things right knowing what we know now. These moments may even cause entrepreneurs to question if they’re on the right path.

Failure, no matter how big or small it may be, does not define who you are as a person. You pursued something you were passionate about and gave it your all. If it works, then it works! If it didn’t or you hit an unexpected roadblock, it truly is not the end of the world. Give yourself a little time to accept what happened and swiftly move on, maintaining a positive attitude about all you have accomplished and confidence in your skills.

It may sound cliché to say that when one door closes, another one opens but it is ultimately quite true for professional and personal lives alike. The next door is opening and you will likely make mistakes there too, but experience, good and bad alike, is the teacher. If you want to succeed, you need to be its student.

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