Handling failure is tough. Most of us struggle with figuring out how to approach it.
Basically, we’d rather just succeed.
But recovery from failure is so important. Chances are, most of us don’t think about it nearly enough.
Think about what’s at stake.
If you don’t handle failure well, it can lead to
and even cause you to quit when you didn’t need to.
When I was in my early twenties, I had an encounter with failure that helped me decide how I was going to handle moving forward. First the story, then the principles I learned from it.
I was working as a law student at a downtown Toronto firm. I was in court almost every day.
This particular day I was working for one of the firm’s partners, I’ll call him James.
James had a reputation for being brutal on students (and other lawyers for that matter). One of his ‘sports’ was to wander down the hall in the afternoon and announce to anyone listening that he was going to ‘ream out’ lawyer X. He would then wander into lawyer X’s office and berate him for five minutes, often loudly enough for everyone to overhear. For him, it was recreational.
On the day in question, I lost the case I was arguing. James’ case. As I came back into the office, the other lawyers and secretaries asked me how I did. When I told them I lost, they said “Well, James is going to kill you.”
Not knowing quite how to respond, I knocked on James’ door.
He looked up and asked, gruffly, “Well, how did it go?”
I told him. “James, I lost.”
But then I did something I hadn’t done before. I didn’t stop there.
“And I take full responsibility for it. Clearly I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I let you down and I let the client down. I should have done better and I realize this is unacceptable. I apologize and I promise you I won’t let it happen again. I’m sorry James.”
At that point, I braced for the tongue lashing.
Instead, he looked confused.
Then he looked up and said, “Well, all right then. Have a good day.”
And that was it.
While I avoided ‘punishment,’ I learned a huge lesson that day in how to handle failure.
I haven’t forgotten it.
Here are five principles I’ve pulled out of that moment that I’ve tried to follow since.
1. Tell the Truth.
Don’t try to sugar coat the problem. When I told James I had blown the case, it disarmed him. I guess he had seen student after student (and lawyer after lawyer) come in and try to spin events in their favor.
If you stop spinning the truth, you’ll discover that honesty is where learning and progress begin.