Failure, the Road to Success

by | May 16, 2011

Even though you may be an expert in your field, that doesn’t insulate you from occasional failures. In fact, long ago I realized that everyone has failures, they are part of being active in the world.

Both experts and amateurs have failures. What really separates professionals from amateurs is this: how they respond to the failure.

Some people say we learn a lot more from failure than we do from success, and that has some truth to it. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First let me list the ways I’ve developed over the years to deal with failures. This is a necessity. Whether it’s an appointment missed, a mistake from inattention, or a misunderstanding that could have been avoided, there are just those days where your number is up.

What to do? Try this:

  1. Admit you blew it. You won’t get anywhere unless you can be honest with yourself.
  2. Stay out of black and white land. It probably isn’t as bad as you think it is, or it won’t last as long as you think it will.
  3. Be ruthless in looking for the reason you failed. Was it laziness? Wrong assumptions? Something outside your control? See #1 above.
  4. Project yourself into the future. Can you see yourself attempting something similar in the future? How would you avoid this failure?
  5. Don’t give up. The upside of our failures is that they point out where we’ve glossed over something we should have studied, or simply missed a crucial piece of the puzzle. With this new knowledge, you’ve greatly increased your chances of success next time around.

Make It Personal

Here are a few of my recent failures, and what I took away from them.

  • Trapped in Tweakland

    When a client some time ago started asking for more and more samples, each with smaller and smaller variants on the design elements in his book, I decided to charge him and let him order as many as he wanted. This was a big mistake. I spent the next six weeks feeling like I was running a sample factory and, even though I charged for the work, it caused problems with my schedules and made me a pain to be around the whole time until the job was finished.

    Lesson: Be specific about what you will and will not do. Imagine the worst.

  • Chasing My Own (Ego’s) Tail

    I did a set of cover designs for a client, who liked them but felt they weren’t quite right. Feeling like I was close to a solution, I did some more, without success. Then the client sent me some artwork to try, so I sat down and created even more covers, all the while feeling like I was just about to have a breakthrough. In the end I had 29 cover designs and the client, who liked none of them, eventually went elsewhere.

    Lesson: You’re not doing anyone a favor by not insisting on a clear path to completion.

  • Losing My Cool

    Working with a brand new publisher, I was halfway through a project that was proving a bit more complex than my client had anticipated. At one point I got impatient and explained that the work he was asking me to do was really an editorial function, and something that ought to have been done before the book ever went into production. I went on to explain the exact meaning of “author’s alterations” and that I was looking out for his interests. I never heard from him again.

    Lesson: When explaining where a project has gone off the rails, make sure to take other people’s feelings into account.

  • Being Disorganized

    One of my best referral sources for high-quality projects sent a client to me to see if we could work together. Because the client came from an unfamiliar direction and didn’t mention my contact, I was slow to respond. I thought it was an unsolicited inquiry. Although I will eventually answer all of them, referrals coming from a valuable source need to be answered promptly. Eventually time ran out and the lucrative project went to someone else.

    Lesson: If I take on more work than I can handle, it doesn’t help me or my clients.

I didn’t set out to learn these lessons. In each case, I was trying to deal with the necessities of the day when a project went sideways. But the lessons I’ve learned through these failures and many others like them form the basis of professional competance and confidence.

What I mean is that when you’ve faced challenges like these and found a way to keep going and make something out of the situation, you naturally have more confidence going into new situations.

Although you’re more keenly aware of what can go wrong, you also build up an innate sense that you’ll be able to handle it.

In this weird way, failure builds your success as nothing else can. And yet, taking risks remains incredibly hard. Even when we know that the worst that can happen is we’ll fail, and learn something from it.

So go out there and fail, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Photo by Stig Nygaard

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  1. Gold

    The is an old saying that goes something like this.
    If you don’t have some failures maybe you aren’t doing enough business.
    If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you know for sure that you won’t win the lottery.
    Do you ever think about how great you feel when you succeed. The only reason for that feeling is because of your failures.

  2. bettymingliu

    joel, what a generous post. generous — because it takes a lot to be this honest in discussing both clients and failure. very helpful! thanks for sharing. :-)

  3. Anthony StClair

    Fear of failure is such a tough one — it’s right up there with ol’ capital R Resistance. I like your point about coming to the best decision you can, sleeping on it, and then moving forward. I’ve been trying to adopt that approach more and more. There are definitely mornings where I wake up wondering what the hell I was thinking — but it still turns out to be the best decision I could come up with, so I go with it.

    Mistakes aren’t easy, but you have to be able to forgive yourself, figure out what happened, and move with it.

  4. Linda Jay Geldens

    Excellent insights about handling failure and appreciating its value on the road to success, Joel! Might also be interesting sometime to investigate why people are afraid of success.

  5. Christopher Wills

    Wow, here’s me thinking that with my poor sales I’m a failure and you’re telling me I’m on the road to success. :) Keep it up Joel.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Chris, I had a nutso English teacher in high school who said, “I only flunk my brightest students” and “an ‘F’ is the mark of true genius.”

        I was a true genius in the first marking period of my junior year because she lost a test paper of mine and insisted that I played hooky that day.

        The next marking period I had an undisputable “A” average but she gave me a “C” because it was too great a jump to go from “F” to “A.”

  6. Kevin Sivils

    Fear of failure combined with a search for perfection can indeed be crippling. American General George Patton stated “a plan that is 70% good executed with aggressive intensity today is much better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

    Patton’s 3rd Army captured more enemy ground with fewer Allied casualties than any other American combat organization during WW II.

  7. Carol Costello

    Words to live by–in self publishing and in life! Thanks, Joel.

  8. Michael N. Marcus

    The fear of failure can be crippling.

    I know someone who is so afraid of making the wrong decision (i.e., failing), that she hates to make any decision.

    If a decision is made and it turns out to be the wrong decision, it can probably be corrected, and that’s much better than doing nothing at all.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, I’ve also discovered the cure for that, too. Take everything into consideration, sleep on it, make your best decision and go forward. The chances are that you’ll be right sometimes and dead wrong other times, which will have the effect of making you realize you might as well move forward anyway since the alternative—doing nothing—has no greater chance of success.

  9. Christopher Wills

    Thanks Joel, this is great. So when I look at my current book sales I think I am failing but you’re saying this is the road to success…. :)


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