The Only Real Failure

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

The above quote by the infinitely wise Nelson Mandela is a valuable lesson for us all to learn: Failure is not avoidable, nor should it be, failure is what defines us. From failure, we learn, we grow. But failure can be hard. It can leave us feeling lost, demoralized, and unmotivated. We worry what others will think of us should we not succeed, so we avoid risk in order to protect ourselves from failure. Instead though, we should learn how to accept and manage failure.

Scenario 1: You receive feedback that your performance does not meet expectations

Feedback can be hard to take, especially when it’s not positive. We have a natural tendency to go on the defensive. We start rattling off excuses or pointing fingers. Sometimes our performance failures may indeed be the byproduct of something beyond our immediate control, but either way it doesn’t change the outcome. Instead of looking backward, look forward. Accept the feedback and take it a step further – ask how you can improve. Set up a plan to reduce the barriers to your success, whether that’s taking additional training, working out issues with a coworker, or delegating work to make your load more manageable. Many people will never get feedback on their performance, so if you do, take it as an opportunity – which is exactly what it is – an opportunity that someone else has given you to prove you can do something great and that this particular performance doesn’t define your entire career.

Scenario 2: You realize you don’t know how to do something

I’m going to let you in on a secret: We can’t do everything. This is especially hard for us go-getters to accept. We think we can figure it all out – delegate something? Never! While it is great to be resourceful, and your first step should always be to try to do something yourself, it is equally acceptable to admit that you can’t. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to say, “Could you clarify that? I am not sure I understand.” or “Who would be a good person to ask for more information on that?” Be willing to do the legwork, but don’t hesitate to ask for direction.

Scenario 3: Something goes wrong

Well that wasn’t in the plan. A client pulls out last minute; a system fails; a deal is lost; you’re going to miss a deadline; someone important is unhappy. There are innumerable ways that something could go wrong. Change, human error, technology glitches – they are all inevitable. The key is to get ahead of these things as much as you can. Develop plans with flexibility for errors and contingencies for unexpected situations. Address issues as soon as they arise. Don’t wait for something to become a disaster before mentioning it to your boss. Just like with the previous scenarios, you need to be willing to let go of pride or fear and admit that things aren’t on track and that you may need help to fix it. As things do go wrong, remember your attitude is critical – be humble, take responsibility, and stay positive about your options.

It is easy to be great during times of success. It is much harder to do so during times of difficulty. But your ability to come out of challenges stronger than when you went in is a testament to your true abilities. Failure is inevitable, but not terrible. Think of it not as the end, but instead as a stepping stone to greater success.


What I’m reading now: The Essential Element to Success

So there you have it. Our No. 1 ingredient for achieving success is quite simple. Why is it so important and what does it have to do with achieving lasting success? Everyone wants to work with people of good cheer. They have the gift of being able to rise above circumstances, no matter what. They are humble and they understand the true meaning of the word “humility,” which is the ability to learn from any experience. And their positive personalities are contagious.

Getting Your Career Off to the Right Start

Every year, around this time, we get a new class of bright, eager IBMers who have just graduated from undergraduate studies and are ready to start their new careers. They are excited about their futures and want to know what they need to do to succeed in this new environment.

In so many ways, these IBMers are no different from any of us who are starting a new career, moving to a new position, or faced with a new challenge. We all want to know how to hit the ground running and demonstrate that we are capable of being successful. And sometimes, the new position seems daunting because, above all else, we do not want to fail. There have been many articles on the subject recently (I like this one from Business Insider), and I wanted to add what has worked well for me in the past.

Find a mentor: Most mentorships develop organically, without the formal “Will you be my mentor?” ask. Instead, look for people who can be influential and inform the career decisions you need to make. Surround yourself with people who are insightful; people who think differently than you or who have been successful in their environment can have advice that you would not have considered. These people can be peers, subordinates, or leaders in other areas. The most important thing is for your mentors to be willing to be candid and helpful. Eventually, your mentors may even become your strongest advocates as you progress through your career. But don’t forget, mentorship is a two way street and you must bring as much to the relationship as your mentor does.

Get involved and get to know your leadership: Attend town hall meetings, networking events, and other activities that will allow you to interact with leaders. Within the first month or two, try to have sit-down, informational interviews with all of the mid-level leaders in your area. These interviews need only be fifteen minutes, but they are excellent opportunities to find more information about the opportunities that exist and the career paths that are available. Ask the leaders about their passions and if they are involved in any special projects or initiatives in the organization. Most leaders will also want to know more about you, in return.  Knowing your leadership is beneficial to both parties; your leadership can volunteer you for projects that meet your interests, and you can continue to get involved in the organization.

Be open: Be willing to go outside of your comfort zone. Try new projects, build new skills, and be open to opportunities that you have never tried. Ask questions and share your informed opinion. You have a seat at the table for a reason, use it! Being open also means accepting feedback and constructive criticism.  Being open can be one of the scariest things in a new career, especially when we do not want to fail. Instead, look at these opportunities as ways to grow and develop.

I think it benefits all of us, whether we have been in our careers for two months or 20 years, to reflect periodically on the things I mentioned above.  I would love to read the best career advice you have received, so please share your thoughts in the Comments.