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If You Want to Achieve Career Success, Fail

When we consider the successful people we know or those famous in their professions, our minds often imagine their road to success was singular and direct. Their extraordinary talent and innate sense of direction clearly took them straight to the top without fear, fuss or doubt.

We tell ourselves it’s a shame our personal experience differs. If only we were that type of person, but instead we know our talents need work and that our path has no clear signposts indicating the best route to take.

But here’s the curious thing. In 99% of cases, the ‘straight forward route to success’ story simply isn’t true.

The reality is that failure after failure and what we learn from our mistakes cultivates and significantly increases the likelihood of success – as long as we keep at it.

New scientific research supports this argument. Researchers have discovered that our ability to perform a new skill, creative or physical task isn’t just about what we have learned to do right through practice. Our success is also greatly attributed to the hundred times we’ve tried to master a skill and failed. The memory of failure actually helps us learn faster.

This list of 50 famously successful people demonstrates the research findings in action. While history remembers the likes of Ford, Disney, Van Gogh, Churchill and Einstein for their ultimate successes, the truth is that they determinedly worked through failure after failure before they got it right.

My clients’ experience is the same. Literally all start with one idea of their ideal role or career, and after countless setbacks, barriers and outright failures they work and re-work their way to precisely the right career for them and one that they excel at.

Far from being something to avoid, getting it wrong is exactly where we need to start. The challenge is overcoming our ‘right first time’ mind-set, which is quick to shut down any new idea or goal at the first sign of disappointment. When our mistakes stare us in the face, we often switch off before profiting from the primary benefit of failing: the chance to adapt and come back with a stronger, smarter approach.

To avoid this trap, here are a few tips:

  • Reframe failure as feedback: Mistakes provide really useful information that takes us closer to our end goal. By reframing failures as learning opportunities, we are more likely to persist, adopting corrective measures and redoubling our efforts to strive for our desired outcome.
  • Don’t get too attached to your plan: A rigid plan can seduce us into thinking failure is impossible and adaptation is unnecessary – heightening our sense of futility when our plan doesn’t work the first time round. Instead, consider your plan as a fluid outline that will improve in creative response to the things you learn.
  • Play the experiment game: Apply a trial and error methodology to your efforts, aiming to expose yourself to lots of different ideas and alternative approaches to see what works and what doesn’t. Under the guise of experimentation you won’t get too attached to the outcome, relaxing your ‘right first time’ instinct.
  • Take baby steps: Deliberately take very small steps towards your goal. It requires less discipline, lowers your mental barrier to change and doesn’t ignite an overwhelming fear of failure, enabling you to build momentum at the right pace for you.
  • Be kind to yourself: Fear of failure is natural. Try writing down your fears in detail and don’t be afraid to explore why and what you fear. Facing your fears head on and accepting they exist can help you regain control over them.

As Winston Churchill succinctly put it, ‘Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’ So be willing to fail as you work towards your career goal. You might just be amazed by the results!

August 21, 2015
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