When you fail at something big-time, you can start to think of yourself as an incompetent person. But the truth is, we all have our failures. In these situations, it helps to remember that even the world's most successful people have failed just as badly as you. In fact, many of them credit their failures with teaching them the lessons that ultimately led to their success.
Research shows that embracing failure and learning from it can make us more successful. One study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making found that people who focused on the emotions they felt during a task they failed at tried harder at the next task. And people with a fear of failure may end up procrastinating and just not getting the job done at all.
Rather than take your failure as a reflection of who you are, then, the best approach is to become all the more determined to prove that's not who you are. But that's easier said than done. For those days when you feel like your failures define you and you'll never bounce back, here are some stories of founders', executives', and other successful people's early failures.
1. Anna Jensen, Co-Founder And Chief Brand Officer Of Snap+Style Business
“I got fired from my first job out of college, and let’s just say it was a real #MeToo moment before we — I, even — knew what that was. I was uncomfortable at work, always walking on eggshells around my boss, but it was my first real job, the market had just crashed, and I was just thankful I had a job. I assumed this was the 'real world' and I better learn to get used to it.
Then, I got fired. My boss had someone else in the office do it. He didn’t have the decency to do it himself. I was livid, ashamed, and overall freaking out. What was I going to say to my parents? To my friends? I’ve since spent a lot of time reflecting on that experience, and my only regret is not sticking up for myself sooner. I feared being viewed as insubordinate if I were to speak up and say I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. In the end, it fueled my fire to become one step closer to being the type of boss I knew I always wanted to be. The power of respect and kindness should never be underestimated.”
2. Tara Langdale-Schmidt, Founder Of VuVatech
"Before I started-up my current company, I was involved in another business venture that was completely different and failed miserably. I was the managing partner in a gourmet build-your-own gingerbread house company. We sold gingerbread house kits in kiosks in malls. There were many problems we encountered but mostly, we failed to understand the market. Whether it’s computers or video games or all the other distractions, children just don’t do as many arts and crafts projects with their parents anymore. We spent over $250,000 on the idea and it failed. It was awful.
But the positive lesson learned: Research your idea before you start. All of my failures with the gingerbread company taught me how to start VuVatech. I learned how to find the right manufacturer, how to find a perfect investor, how to get great legal advice, how to market my idea, and how to reach women who needed by product. Most of the time in business, you do not hit a home run on your first try at bat. It was important for me to fail so I was ready to succeed the next time around."
3. Mary Marantz, Photographer, Entrepreneur, Writer, And Speaker
"The first time we applied to speak at a conference, we didn’t get picked. And we thought that was our first major failure. That was until the following year, when we applied again and were accepted… and the failure really began. That’s because the first time we spoke at a big conference, we bombed. Fall on your face, bumbling through the words, fighting back tears, can’t catch your breath, I can’t believe this is happening, did I really just tell a 'let’s go into the darkroom and see what develops' joke…bombed.
We had practiced for months for this talk — had timed everything down to the last minute making sure to add in plenty of time to allow for audience laughter, so certain we were that these jokes of ours would land to uproarious applause. We knew the material inside and out, had practiced the hand off of talking points like Wimbledon-worthy tennis doubles players in their stride. And then... 12 people showed up. Twelve people in a room that would hold a hundred. And 10 of them were our friends from home. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. And it would have been really easy to quit right then and there on this dream of speaking. But I love what Jon Acuff says when he talks about your 'Nebraska Years,' — about making your mistakes and honing your craft in front of the small groups of 20 or 30 (or in our case, 12) because it prepares you one day for the stadiums.
Ten of the people that day might have been our friends from home. But as it turns out, one of the other two just so happened to be the brand new director of community for the organization who was responsible for the launching of 100 small groups across the country right around the same time. One hundred brand new groups who all needed speakers. And for reasons I still don’t know to this day, she decided to give us our first real shot: the chance to travel around the country and speak to these groups, 10 and 20 people at a time. It gave us the chance to get in front of people. To really learn our craft of speaking and to build a grassroots audience from the ground up. So, that the following year, when we returned to speak at that same conference again... this time, it was standing room only. And right now, once again, we’re in a season of our business and lives with a whole new set of firsts…. and a whole new set of 'no’s. But I try not to worry too much about the 'no’s anymore, because I know that what counts — what really matters — is the trying again part."
4. Scott Griffiths, Co-Founder and CEO Of 18|8 Fine Men’s Salons
"My business I created that failed was my microbrewery, Rhino Chasers. In addition to building the brand into a very successful brewpub at the Los Angeles Airport, the concept soon blossomed into one of the top 15 brands in the U.S. From there, we tackled national distribution and launched one the most creative promotions that eventually influenced a whole emerging industry, in the craft beer industry. We grew so fast that every dollar was going into purchasing inventory and sales support. We had to raise more money and we did so with venture capital. However, the caveat was that I give up my position as CEO and let the venture capitalists hire a CEO with an MBA. My decision to let go of my brand, drove the business into the ground. Needless to say, a year later I applied to UCLA to get an MBA."
5. Paul Bromen, Owner Of UponaMattress.com
"When I was 22, after backpacking from Bangkok to Hong Kong, I decided that nothing was going to stop China from becoming an economic superpower. I begged everyone I could for money and put it all in the Chinese stock market. I made a small fortune. I quit my job at Target and planned to open my own hedge fund. Then, a prominent Chinese astrologist proclaimed that 2008 would be a water year and the Shenzhen Exchange crashed hard. I managed to salvage my positions and put them in the 'safe' U.S. market one month before Lehman Brothers busted. The U.S. market plummeted and things got very dark.
I went into a shame spiral that had me contemplating jumping off my condo balcony. Eventually, I pulled myself out of my depression and started a real estate consulting business helping banks during the Great Recession. Selling that business allowed me repay all the money I owed. Though it's the part of my life I would like to least repeat, I use the toughness and lessons I learned every day in my new business."
5. Amma Marfo, Author, National Speaker, And Facilitator
"After successfully self-publishing multiple books and talking with several people who were interested in taking the same route, I explored the idea of designing an online course to teach others how to navigate the process for themselves. I piloted the course with several eager and talented writers before launching version 2.0. Doing what I thought was a considerable marketing push, spending hours putting together workbooks, videos, and resources from writer friends and colleagues of mine, I was sure it was going to go over great. But does it count as being an online instructor if you hold a class and nobody came? Yep, nobody.
It was embarrassing — and in truth, some days, still is. But I learned a few really important things about myself and the nature of my professional success to date. I have a foothold in a certain niche, but that doesn't mean that advertising to that niche is going to yield results all the time. Ultimately, the manner in which I marketed this course didn't reach the people who might want to take it. I relied on talking to those who already knew and were familiar with me, but who I know now didn't need what I was selling. Furthermore, I tried to launch this course at a time when a lot of entrepreneur-types I followed and learned from were launching courses. It felt like 'the thing to do.'
But I know now, the most powerful teaching I can do is in my live workshops and trainings. I am considerably more effective in those spaces. And it's a better fit for the things I'm hoping to impart to people. Just because lots of people are doing something (teaching online courses, getting book deals, booking TV appearances) doesn't mean it's something I also have to do. I'm a more self-assured creator now that I've acknowledged that."
7. Eileen Gittins, Founder Of Bossygrl
“After 9/11 and the dot-com crash, many venture-backed startups were unable to get follow-on financing. I didn’t know what I was going to do; there were no jobs and no money to start another company. Feeling the need for a creative break and a way to stay in touch with people I cared about, I started taking photographs again. I asked folks from my various startups if they’d agree to a photo session at their house, the beach, their studio, wherever. Soon, I found that people wanted prints. As a result, I founded Blurb, the self-publishing platform, as a way to efficiently share photos in a premium quality book.”
8. DeeAnn Sims, Founder of SPBX
"As a solo entrepreneur, when I was just starting out, I grew my business by trial and error in more ways than one. There were a ton of lessons learned the hard way, and although I've never really considered anything a true failure, my very first, contractual client out the gate could definitely have been considered a major failure — so bad, in fact, that I ended up suing them in court! Definitely not how I saw that going, BUT I won my case and walked away with a valuable nugget of knowledge: be sure to get everything in writing. While you're at, you can never be too specific, so make sure you've covered all the bases, no matter how tedious or trivial the details may seem at the time. Thanks to my due diligence, I was able to come out on the other side bruised rather than broken."
9. Grainne Kelly, inventor of BubbleBum
"The biggest mistake I ever made was expecting that others would have the same degree of integrity as I do. I visited a factory with my original design and did not ask them to sign the confidentiality agreement before sharing my design. While I was sitting in their office, the Managing Director drove to Shanghai, three hours away, and applied for a utility patent. Now, I don’t talk to anyone about anything without first signing a confidentiality agreement. It has cost us tens of thousands, but I have learned so much about intellectual property along the way."
These stories prove that your biggest failures lay the foundation for your biggest successes. Another upside to all these people's failures? Now, we can learn from them, too.