Career Ideas–Understand Failure

One of the most famous stories about seeing failure in a new light is about Edison.  A reporter is said to have asked how he felt about having failed in thousands of experiments trying to make a lightbulb. Edison replied, I haven’t failed once. I found 9,999 ways to not make the lightbulb.

Einstein too had many failures, including a critique of Neils Bohr’s work which didn’t take into account Einstein’s own theory of relativity. As a career coach (with plenty of my own “failures” along the way, including how I chose my previous career), I often deal with clients who see their careers or their current career as a failure.  Sometimes it’s because they just got fired.  Sometimes it’s because they are stressed out in the wrong job.  Sometimes it’s because they don’t know where they are going in their lives and already middle aged. To deal with such perceptions of failure with my clients, I need to do 2 things.

First, isolate what the failure really is, and see if the person is not overgeneralizing much about a mistake, blowing it all out of proportion, and leading to bad decisions such as suddenly leaving a job. For instance, when they say they never do job interviews right, I want to know what they mean by right and wrong. Maybe they just mean that they tend to answer one question out of dozens during the interview in a way that hurt their chances, something that can happen in the best of interviews. Maybe they mean they offended someone by their view on how things should be done. We can review these answers and see if they were excellent answers that just didn’t match with the particular interview.  These answers do not mean the person is a failure at interviewing and needs to go hide his head. In fact, interviews are two way streets where you are evaluating the employer as they evaluate you. With a two way process, the answer that “failed” with the interviewer may be the one that helped you realize this wasn’t the place for you.

Second, even if the specific “failure” or mistake was real and significant, the next question is not–Are you ever going to get interviewing right, but What did you learn. It’s hard to learn new things if you don’t see something as needing improvement, and when we see failure it really focuses our attention. So failure is success, as Edison realized, in that it is a core component of succeeding and learning.  In coaching yourself, look at your failures to see if you are overgeneralizing (for instance, I didn’t finish the project on time again so I’m never going to succeed in this job). Narrow down to what the problem actually was and then go ahead and see what you can learn and do differently from then on. With all that in mind, check out this video from Honda about failure and how innovation and change depend on pushing things until they fail in order to really learn something new.


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Text © 2009 by, Leonard Lang.  Feel free to pass on this article as long as you include the copyright notice and the link to


Career Ideas–Understand Failure — 2 Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more with your very perceptive comments. I am adding a couple of paragraphs from a new book that Katie Ledger and I are writing called There is Another Way: 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career. This will be published by Bloomsbury in October and coincidentally I was writing a piece on failure for the final chapter when I came across your blog. For what it is worth this is what we have written:

    The word ‘failure’ is normally used pejoratively. Rarely can it be used descriptively as almost always it is someone’s opinion. And almost always what we really mean is that something that we have tried has not worked out. That is the be all and end all of it. Yet sadly we then label the experience as a failure and all too often then broaden that out to state that we are a failure. We believe strongly that we would not get far in life without some things going wrong for us. The challenge is to ensure that we learn from what went wrong. The early promoter of self-help, Samuel Smiles, put it elegantly at the turn of the 20th century:
    “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

  2. Yes. It’s not failure vs. success, like red light green light. It’s a continuum of living that brings us a variety of experiences and ways to learn and grow, as you indicate. Robert Fritz, author of Creating, and The Path of Least Resistance, says that we need to get out of a performer mode (did it right, didn’t do it right) which most of us are in, and get into a student or learner mode. I also find, as I indicated in the post, so many people take a little error and turn it into a big failure, which is the wrong lesson entirely.