Learning from Adversity: 3 Tips for “Failing Forward”

Learning from Adversity: 3 Tips for “Failing Forward”

As a lifetime entrepreneur and business turnaround speaker, I’m no stranger to failure. Throughout my career, I’ve made difficult decisions that turned out to be the wrong ones…tried new things I didn’t happen to be good at…took risks that didn’t end up reaping great rewards.

But as Malcolm Forbes famously said, “Failure is success if we learn from it.” Both in my own business and the enterprises of those I’ve met on the business turnaround speaker circuit, I’ve found this to be a powerful and persistent truth. Here are three essential tips to make your business “failures” the building blocks to future success.

                                                                      “Success consists of going from failure
to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

                                                                                                                            —Winston Churchill

1. Be Fearless. In my opinion, one of the biggest ways you can truly fail is to let your fear stop you from taking risks. Author J.K. Rowling is the living embodiment of this principle. As a struggling author and single mother, she refused to give up on her bespectacled literary son, collecting rejection slip after rejection slip.

When Bloomsbury finally did agree to publish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, her editor advised her to get a day job, as she’d “never make any money in children’s books.” Well, we all know how this story ends—or, rather, begins. The original Harry Potter franchise raked in a record $8 billion, ultimately giving rise to a variety of additional profitable spinoffs ranging from jelly beans to amusement parks.

                                                                      “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin

                                                                            again—this time more intelligently.”

                                                                                                                             —Henry Ford

2. Learn from Your Mistakes. It seems like a simple idea, but you’d be surprised how many people I meet in my travels as a business turnaround speaker who don’t want to talk about their failures…at all. Americans, in particular, are taught from a very early age that failure is something to be avoided at all costs; this leads to adults who believe failure is something to be ashamed of.

To these people I say, “let’s talk about it!” I want to encourage everyone to do a thorough post-mortem on every one of their failed endeavors. Unpack it. Examine it. Discuss it with your mentor, or with advisors in a related field. What went wrong, and why? While disappointment is natural, dwelling on one’s mistakes is unproductive and unadvisable. Turn that introspection into aspirations toward your next undertaking.

                                                                          “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

                                                                                                                             —James Joyce

3. Think in 360°. While you’re unpacking your last failure, I want you to also think about what went right. If I’ve learned one thing as a business turnaround speaker, it’s that every risky endeavor is a made up of numerous decisions; while there might be one choice that sent your idea into the “loss” column, there are likely a handful of ideas that might work perfectly when applied in other situations.

So, before tossing them out, look in every direction for potential applications. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the success of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launch, and a lot of speculation about how the sports car wunderkind made the leap to space travel. But would it surprise you to learn that space travel was always the goal—and that the entire Tesla Motors empire was merely a stepping stone to the wild blue yonder?

Jim Cantrell, a co-founder of Musk’s SpaceX enterprise, says, “Elon starts by defining a goal, and he puts a lot of effort into understanding that goal. His goal was to make mankind a multi-planetary species, and to do that he had to first solve the transportation problem.” Thus, in working towards technologies he would ultimately apply to rockets, Musk had some “reject ideas” that he applied to a new breed of automobile.

It’s proof positive that spending time in the dirt is the fastest route to the stars.

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