How to Get Better at Handling Failure: Key Lessons From Entrepreneurs
Our culture equates failure with guilt, shame and depression, so you’ll need to learn some serious coping strategies.
5 min read
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As an entrepreneur, you can count, with real certainty, on the likelihood that you’ll experience failure at some point in your career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Business Employment Dynamics, about 20 percent of new businesses fail in their first year, and half fail by their fifth year. Even if your business manages to be successful for a decade or longer, you’ll probably fail by losing a major client, succumbing to a price war with a competitor or shutting down a plan for expansion.
You’ve heard it before, but what makes a successful entrepreneur isn’t avoiding failure at all costs; it’s being able to accept and learn from the failures you do experience.
Unfortunately, our culture is one that equates failure with guilt, shame and depression, so you’ll need to learn some serious coping strategies if you want to get past your failures. Here are four:
Remember that failure isn’t the end.
First, change how you see failure. In the minds of many new and inexperienced entrepreneurs, failure seems like the end of the road. It’s a sign that they’ve done everything wrong, or that they don’t have a chance of success in the future. In reality, it’s just the beginning, or a wrong turn on a long journey.
You can take inspiration from entrepreneurs who fail repeatedly, but still keep pressing forward, or those whose first ventures were total failures. For example, remember that Bill Gates’s first company, Traf-o-Data, was almost a total failure, and not the last of his many questionable business decisions. Yet today, he’s one of the richest people on the planet. There’s also Richard Branson, who despite having an incredibly strong core brand in Virgin, has launched many failed business ventures, including Virgin Cola, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Cars.
Decompress (if you can).
Building a business from the ground up is a massive undertaking, which puts increased pressure on your finances and demands countless hours of work. Instead of jumping right back into things, take a moment to decompress. De-stress before you return to work with your next idea.
Few successful entrepreneurs find satisfaction or profitability by jumping from one opportunity to the next. After completing a project or reaching a crucial turning point (whether that’s success or failure), veteran entrepreneurs often take a few weeks to a few months away to sort things out.
Research shows that taking a vacation from work can decrease your risk for heart disease, decrease your risk of depression, lower your stress and increase your productivity. In other words, taking some time to yourself can help you ensure you meet your next venture with the right health and energy.
Write down key lessons about your failure
You can learn to process failure more productively if you write down the key lessons you’ve taken away from your failure. Warren Buffett (among other entrepreneurs) is a big fan of writing lists in a tangible format; writing things down forces you to think through them, and allows you to better retain those ideasin the future. Making a list can also serve as a visual reminder, inspiring you or reminding you of your most important lessons the next time you’re met with a crucial opportunity.
Spend at least a few hours on a retrospective about your experiences. Take note of decisions you could have made differently and things you wish you would have known earlier. This will also help you turn your failure into a more positive experience, since it’s now an opportunity for learning and growth.
Embrace being a novice.
In his 2005 Standford commencement address, Steve Jobs reflected on his departure from Apple by saying, “…it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
You may not like the idea of starting over, but try to think of this as a positive. You get to explore a new opportunity, and a new set of ideas; and best of all, you’ll actually have the time to do it.
If you’re looking for more concrete lessons from entrepreneurs who have failed, there are several resources you can consult. First, you can try Autopsy.io, a database dedicated to compiling startup postmortems. There are currently 163 to read through, stretching from 2000 to the modern day.
You can also read through CB Insights’ massive compilation of startup retrospectives, which number 269 as of this writing. There’s a lesson to learn in every failure, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, so stay positive and remain open to those lessons as you pursue your next entrepreneurial journey.