Please help me stand up straight, make a new plan, and dive in again.
August 27, 2008 8:29 PM   Subscribe

I have never had to try very hard, and yet I've usually succeeded. Until now. How do I become better at dealing with failure?

Bit of background:

As a child, I was a quick learner. I was invited into a gifted program but didn't go, so I was a high academic and extra-curricular achiever in a series of average schools. When I entered the work force, I was well-rounded, confident, and generally seen as an up-and-comer in my field. Pretty much everything I've ever tried to do came easy, from academics to sports to career. Lucky me.

I got cocky.

I'm 30 now. I'm switching fields. My new area of interest is much more competitive, with a higher proportion of really skilled, creative, and interesting people. I'm new at it, I'm a little intimidated, and I'm not the impressive young one anymore. I'm starting to fail. I'm not used to failure. Wow, it sucks. Good stuff is still happening: I landed some contracts I'm proud of, and had some successes at work. My life is far from bad, and I know it. But in the past two years, I have put a concerted and genuine effort into a handful of potentially life-changing things, and I have not succeeded at any of them.

Looking back, I can see some reasons why things didn't work out, and I usually try to post-mortem my efforts and learn from my mistakes. But in these cases, I didn't necessarily make mistakes; sometimes I just didn't make the cut because other people were better. Ouch. I can feel the wind leaving my sails. Each time, it gets harder and harder to really commit to attempting the next big thing, which of course is a vicious cycle.

Just as an example, I'll be more detailed about most recent "failure", although I'm asking for suggestions to apply to my world view more than to any particular incident. I assembled a team and we spent several months making a labor-intensive pitch for a labor-intensive project. I just found out that our pitch was rejected. I still think the idea has merit, and I know we can do it independently of the company we pitched to. This will mean deferring the project, running around to find some capital, working with less support and without prestigious backers attached, and paying everyone less than than we originally planned. I don't mind doing all that- it's essentially "my" project, and I'm okay with working hard for little reward because I care about it. But I can't do this project without other people, and I hate the idea of proposing a cut-rate version to everyone else. I feel discouraged and embarrassed about the whole thing, and I want nothing more than to just forget about it, even though I know it's a viable idea with genuine merit. I should suck it up and just do it a different way. But I'm very discouraged.

So I'm seeking advice on how to improve my outlook for future endeavors. How do I get over big failures and psych myself up for the next attempt? How do I stay confident when I tried my best but my best wasn't good enough?
For anonymous correspondence, I'm at Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I had sort of a similar experience, and I can tell you that the corporate world or the world of pitching projects has less feeback, and goalposts than the academic world or a lot of other professions.

Some projects - like most pilot projects - are practically designed to fail. This is reality sometimes, and everyone who does this kind of thing is going to have good projects that fail to gain support, and bad projects which suck energy, ambition and resources.

Truthfully, my advice is to make sure you have a full life outside of your field of work. These business glories are fleeting, and usually not worth fighting for....
posted by Deep Dish at 9:01 PM on August 27, 2008

This is a common problem for people who were treated like little geniuses as kids. It breeds an attitude that anything less than excellence is somehow pedestrian or wrong. The fun part kicks in when you grow into professions where you will never be excellent unless you go through some long periods of being pedestrian, wrong, and all the rest! Persistence is more important than talent, which is not something the "quick learner, never had to try" set likes to hear, at least at first.

I think the main thing is that you have to deal with the fact that you don't live in a universe where you'll always nail it the first time and forevermore. In life, you're going to fail a great deal, sometimes when you might expect it, and at other times when you might not. The flip side is that failure is a better teacher than success and that, frankly, it's a great big load off your shoulders when you no longer burden yourself with unrealistic expectations of what you're capable of by yourself. After all, perfectionism has nothing to do with actually being perfect.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

This is usually fixed by failing some more. You learn from mistakes. Go over the presentation. Take out some of the labor-intensitivity in it. Pitch it again, better. Fail again, learn from that.

Remember there are more big-time backers out there. Go out and find some more.

Really, the type of human being you are is really all about your reaction to failure. And there is one bonifide way to get past it--that's to continue to try until you find something that works for you.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2008

Talk yourself into it or you'll talk yourself out of it.
posted by 517 at 9:06 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read everything you can about Carol Dweck. (Sorry I don't have more time to dig through this for the gems, but trust me: this is exactly what her brilliant research is all about. I wish I'd read it when I was eighteen rather than 43.)
posted by alms at 9:14 PM on August 27, 2008

In my experience, almost all lawyers suffer from this issue for some time after they enter the field, especially if they went straight through to law school.

I got over it when I realized that while I wasn't perfect, I was trying harder and cared more than many (if not not most) of the attorneys I was opposing (in other words, I wasn't actually failing by anyone's standard but my own). And when I realized that, hey, the worst thing that happens to me if I truly truly fail? I get fired. The worst consequence of that for me? I'm not sure, but I know I will never be homeless or starving, thanks to a combination of luck, hardwork, and a big family that would feel obligated to take care of me. In the scheme of things, that's a pretty good feeling.

(I'm thinking this might not be coherent because I've worked some 18 hours today trying not to fail... but that's a different issue).
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:34 PM on August 27, 2008

Learning to deal with failure is a bit like chicken pox - it hurts a whole lot worse if you first experience it as an adult. But you're not failing at everything. Build your worldview around the totality of your life. You are much more than your job. You are your relationships with family, friends, lovers, and yourself. You are your hobbies, your sports, your art, your career. At any given time you'll be doing very well at some of these and not so well at others. Look at them all so that you can always see where you are succeeding. It takes some of the sting out of the places where you're experiencing more challenges.

For what it's worth, your latest "failure" sounds like a very entrepreneurial endeavor. The best entrepreneurs expect to fail over half the time. There's an oft-quoted stat which says that the average successful startup is the founder's third attempt. VCs actually look at a couple of prior failed companies as an asset if it's clear that the founders gained experience that increases their chance of success now.

Look around for social organizations that cater to entrepreneurs. There are lots near major urban centers and even more online. Spend time grokking the mindset of people who've played in that space for a while. The ones who survive have evolved a very healthy attitude toward setbacks and it's pretty inspiring to learn from them.
posted by rhiannon at 12:31 AM on August 28, 2008

Keep remembering that every failure is actually a learning opportunity in disguise.
posted by LN at 6:20 AM on August 28, 2008

« Older Help novice select a new cell phone   |   What does one do while getting a tattoo? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.