How to Overcome (and Prevent) Business Failure: A Guide

by Corey Pemberton 9 Minutes

Inspirational success stories are everywhere you look.

But stories about business failure?

Those are harder to find.

Failure is uncomfortable – and persistent. But the more successful you want to be, the more failure there is to overcome.

Way too many of us are treating these struggles like dirty secrets. So let’s stop right now. Instead, let’s pull failure into the light and figure out how we can overcome it to reach our goals.

The Dirty Secret Most People Ignore

Everyone fails. The problem: most of us don’t like talking about it.

That’s understandable. I can’t blame you if you aren’t eager to relive painful experiences.

But keeping failure in the dark like this creates a warped view. We read countless success stories, and when those stories gloss over all the business failures, we assume that there must be something wrong with us.

How come we fail so often when our role models aren’t?

When you dig into this deeper, you see that you aren’t getting the full story. The greatest successes are actually the greatest failures too! To live the life of your dreams, failure is a requirement.

Bringing Failure Into the Light

Because so many people are reluctant to talk about failure, you’ve probably had to feel your own way through it. Figure things out on your own.

It’s easier to pretend like failures won’t happen again. To sweep them under the rug. But ignoring the issue now doesn’t help you address it when it (inevitably) arrives later on.

What if you made a plan to tackle failure in a systematic way?

(At Least Some) Business Failure is Guaranteed – But You Can Handle It Better

Everyone processes failure differently. The only guarantee: experiencing it is inevitable.

J.K. Rowling got it right:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

You aren’t about to give up on your dreams. So let’s talk practical solutions to prepare yourself for failure – and overcome it while continuing to move forward.

Image credit: DaFranzos

1. Recognize That “Failure” Is Just a Trick Your Mind Plays

Failures with your business (and personal life) will happen often on your road to success.

But what if you started viewing them differently?

What if you saw them as figments of your imagination – and nothing more?

That’s all they are, really.

Imagine a lion hunting in the savanna. When one gazelle escapes, she doesn’t give up or berate herself for not being better. She just goes after another gazelle. The only way to “fail” is to stop hunting altogether.

For us, a sense of failure is emotional. It isn’t due to the fact that reality doesn’t align with our intended outcome. It’s our interpretation of that mismatch.

Keeping this in mind helps creates emotional distance between your results and how you choose to feel about them. If you’re discouraged, remember the lion. Just keep hunting!

Image credit: RobinHiggins

2. Accept the Pain Anyway

Our sense of failure may be imaginary, but it’s still powerful. Distancing yourself emotionally is often easier said than done.

Many of us are uncomfortable confronting our failures head-on. It’s easier to ignore them – or tell ourselves that the pain and disappointment we feel isn’t real.

But one of the most important steps in overcoming failure is to accept its emotional effects. Better to allow yourself to feel the pain than try to repress it.

So give yourself permission to be disappointed. Just be careful not to let that disappointment go on for weeks (or months) on end. Don Shula, the most successful NFL coach in history, gave his players a 24-hour rule when they could brood over a loss. One day later, it was time to focus on the next game.

Image credit: Wokandapix

3. Channel Your Frustration in a Healthy Way

Accepting the negative emotions will help you come to terms with failure. The next step: take action to process them in a healthy way. We can’t afford to assume they’ll go away on their own.

How are you channeling that frustration and disappointment in a constructive way?

Maybe it’s running or lifting weights. A kickboxing class or hot yoga. It even could be writing, music, or some other artistic pursuit.

It doesn’t matter which thing you choose, as long as: 1) you enjoy it, and 2) it makes you feel better. The main thing is to make room for this as a consistent habit. You’ll process negative emotions more effectively and lower your stress.

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4. Reflect After Things Go Wrong

Within every failure lies an opportunity to grow.

Spotting these lessons – and applying them in your life – will shortcut your path to success. You often can’t find them anywhere else!

It’s time to start reflecting on your failures.

Not in a “woe is me” kind of way. There’s no room for self-pity. If you can reflect on your failures more objectively, you’ll find a lot more to learn.

One of the best ways to do this: write about your big failures. This is uncomfortable. But when you discuss what went wrong and what you could do next time to be better, that’s where the magic happens. It also helps you process the experience emotionally.

Another option is to talk this out with your mentor or mastermind group. Discuss this with people you trust, and they’ll help you dig out insights from a different angle.

Image credit: Snufkin

5. Reassess Your Business and Personal Goals

So many of our failures are self-inflicted.

We impose unrealistic standards on ourselves, and we get upset when we fail to meet them.

Say you want to triple your income this year. An ambitious goal. Nothing wrong with that!

The challenge is having to live day to day without meeting that goal. Even if you’re working hard and increasing your income, that doesn’t motivate you like it should because you’re still short of your “big goal.”

Setting goals like that is tough because they’re completely out of your control. You could work 100 hours a week. Even then, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll triple your income in three months or three years. And you’ll “fail” until you do.

Boost your motivation by changing your goals to something you can control. Things like the hours of client work you do each day, the number of prospects reached, and so on.

By keeping your goals on something you can control, it’s easier to do what you need to do and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. All the while, you’ll move ever closer to your ultimate vision of success.

Image credit: PDPics

6. Watch Your Vocabulary and Labels

“I failed.”

“I’m a huge failure. Why can’t I stop screwing up?”

That sounds like typical chatter from our overactive minds. But it can be harmful if you let it go on unchecked.

Language and labels are powerful. If you keep associating things you do with “failure,” it’s only a matter of time before you identify with that on a personal level. Instead of seeing failure for what it really is (a mismatch between your objectives and reality), you see yourself as unworthy.

Stay mindful of how you address this stuff. I know I’m using “failure” a lot in this post, but you’re probably better off forgetting the term after you read this. You can rephrase experiences with more empowering language like “that didn’t turn out like I expected it too” instead.

Finally, remember that you are not your results. This will help you see failure from a more detached perspective. Which makes it easier to overcome and keep moving forward.

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7. Study Failure Stories from the People You Admire the Most

If you’re anything like me, you have tons of people you admire in business. With all their successes, they seem more superhero than human.

Behind all those inspirational stories lies plenty of failure.

We just don’t hear about it much in typical entrepreneurship articles on Entrepreneur, Inc.com, and Forbes.

Yet when we dig deeper, we discover all the struggles that made our heroes the inspirations they are today.

Pick a few of your business role models and spend some time getting their full stories. You’re more likely to find failures discussed in-depth interviews and biographies than short magazine articles.

Understanding these people’s failures makes them human again. You get to see that others have overcome struggles harder than you can even imagine. And if they can do it, so can you!

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8. Remember That Nothing Worthwhile Comes Easy

Does your vision of success involve vegetating in front of the TV munching on junk food?

Probably not.

Anyone can do that, after all. That’s what a lot of people do right after they get home from work.

The most inspirational dreams – the ones worth really going after – are special because they’re difficult. Becoming a multimillionaire, a world-class guitarist, or getting an eight pack requires an incredible amount of effort.

To reach those special dreams, you have to put in the work to become a special person. That means plenty of failures and missteps along the way.

Whenever you’re frustrated, just remind yourself that it’s all part of the process. Remember: everyone would have it if it were easy!

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9. Stay Present

We can eliminate a huge portion of failures by staying present on the task at hand.

It’s so easy to fall into a pattern where you’re spending now reliving last year’s business (or personal) failures. Or worrying about experiencing new ones in the future. Even though there’s nothing we can do to change them.

If you don’t know where to get started, focus only on what you need to do today to move closer to success. Just a few minutes of meditation a day can help you stay centered.

Yes, you’ve failed in the past and will fail again in the future. That’s okay. If you stop dwelling on that, you’ll rid yourself of the emotional baggage of anxiety and regret.

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10. Acknowledge (and Celebrate) Small Wins

We entrepreneurs and creative types tend to be too hard on ourselves. No one holds us to higher standards than we do ourselves.

This means we magnify failures and overlook successes. If we constantly feel like we aren’t good enough, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

One of the best things we can do for our mental health is to acknowledge our wins – even if they’re small. Take a few minutes out of your day to appreciate the effort you’ve put in. And reward yourself for a job well done.

This doesn’t have to be elaborate. Spending just one or two minutes at the end of every workday writing out the things you got done (even if they seem insignificant) can shift your perspective.

Image credit: geralt

11. Always Have Another Project in the Pipeline

One of the best ways to avoid crippling emotions of failure?

Always have a new project in the pipeline!

This is what legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki does. He doesn’t even watch his own films once they’re done because he knows he’ll dwell on his mistakes.

By always having something to work on next, we limit the sting when one project doesn’t pan out. We’re too busy working on the next big thing to beat ourselves up about the last.

Even if you’re busy, spend a few minutes each day brainstorming new projects. Becoming more prolific is the easiest way to keep emotional distance between yourself and each project.

Of course you’re crushed about a poorly-received product if it’s the only one you have. But if you have a suite of half a dozen, it’s easier to keep one failure in perspective.

Your Turn

Failure is a monster we all have to grapple with.

It’s painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes, downright intimidating.

But it’s within our power to overcome it and keep moving forward. We can’t avoid failure on our path to success, but we can get proactive about how we choose to deal with it. Instead of seeing it as a reason to punish ourselves, we can find opportunities in every obstacle.

What has been your most painful failure this year? Why? What lessons did you learn? Leave a comment below and let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.