02/18/2015 06:03 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Failing in Business Can Teach Us How to Succeed

Portrait of young woman working in office, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA
Tetra Images via Getty Images
Portrait of young woman working in office, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA

Failing is no fun. Few of us enjoy feeling that we didn't perform to our potential, lost money or wasted valuable time.

As we get busier and take on more tasks and challenges just to get by, we are increasingly finding comfort in many icons of our time who tell us that failing is ultimately the best way to learn and move forward. They say that we must celebrate our strengths and weaknesses and not worry about how others judge us. Authors such as Brené Brown talk about the value of living life with purpose and not living in fear of making mistakes.

With a net worth of approximately $80 billion, Bill Gates has clearly enjoyed more wins than failures. When he dropped out of Harvard in 1975, his parents saw him as a failure. They had no idea that unimaginable success would come to him with his co-founding of Microsoft Corporation with Paul Allen. Gates wasn't failing, just playing by his own rules.

The growth of Microsoft was marked by a number of poor decisions shared by Gates and Allen. Those missteps prompted Gates to say years later, "It's fine to celebrate success but it's more important to heed the lessons of failure."

Here are eight things I have learned from my failures during 30 years in business:

Learn from unanticipated or unthinkable experiences. In business and in life, external events can quickly and unexpectedly conspire to change the rules, without consulting you. All you can do is take nothing for granted and figure out ways to better manage similar events next time. And there will be a next time.

Don't over-promise. As an independent business person, I initially wanted to be all things to all people. Starting out as a young, well-intentioned professional, I sometimes over-promised and failed to deliver. I learned to focus on what I was good at and enjoyed doing rather than adding stress to my life by spreading myself too thinly.

Get it in writing. My clients always pay me for the work I do. Earlier in my career, I sometimes went against my instincts and worked with people who I sensed were not trustworthy. Sure enough, I was often right and I was not paid. My failure to first get it in writing and get paid taught me a valuable lesson.

Manage expectations and don't just give your talent away. Seeking people's approval in order to win and keep their business is not the same thing as giving them professional value. I felt that it was important for me to constantly go above and beyond what was agreed to ensure clients would hire me again. This devalued my professional brand and made redefining the terms of engagement very difficult once I had set a precedent.

Others aren't watching us as closely as we think. When we fail, we are often embarrassed to tell others what has happened. Even before they ask, we are running through scenarios in our head about the excuses we will give for our change in circumstances. I learned to conserve my physical and mental energy by essentially not anticipating other people's reactions when things didn't work out.

Glass is half full versus half empty. We are genetically preconditioned to protect ourselves by thinking more about what could go wrong than what is going right. This is witnessed by the fact that the emotions investors experience following small losses are more intense than those that accompany large gains. I have learned that adversity helps me to evolve thanks to the challenging experiences that stick with me. On the flip-side, failing can open your eyes to the fact that for you, this is not a permanent state of being. It can help to accentuate all that you have accomplished and build on it with confidence.

Purposeful team building as a result of failing. I sometimes failed in the past by not being selective when choosing colleagues who I would ask to work on certain assignments. I quickly realized that instead of filling gaps in my business offerings with just any professional who could the job, I needed to work with colleagues with whom I shared personal values. While time consuming, it was worth carefully cultivating working relationships that I was sure would last beyond the next big assignment.

Second chances are abundant. I realize that the occasional failure does not mean the end. While I don't start each day with the question, "How can I fail and learn today?" I realize that even with focus and persistence, many doors can close abruptly and often for no reason. But I keep working that corridor. "As one door closes, another door opens."


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