3 Ways to Deal with Failure and Move Forward

IMAGE: Will van Wingerden via  Unsplash

IMAGE: Will van Wingerden via Unsplash

Failure increases stress. Stress increases anxiety. Anxiety feeds your emerging existential crisis. And then you snap back to reality.

From there, you'll end up searching for meaning, become inspired and start a new project — staring a new potential failure right in the face with bravery.

That’s what happened to me, at least.

I used to co-run a clothing company that I was incredibly passionate about. We created nautical-themed clothing and accessories, screenprinting the garments ourselves. It was fun, insightful and a great creative outlet for me to hone my digital marketing skills.

After a multi-year run that ended in disappointment due to the limitations of full-time employment and trouble with the IRS, it was clearly time to pull the plug.

I was devastated.

At this point, I never considered life without some kind of side project to occupy my mind. If I wasn’t running a business, I was in a band. If I wasn’t in a band, I was playing sports. If I wasn’t playing sports…honestly, I was probably eating.

The point is that I’ve always had something to do outside of my primary obligations.

Soon, without a side hustle, I ended up slipping into a strange state of disillusion the likes of which I’ve never experienced before.

Was this all because of my failed business? Was this the ever-trendy quarter-life crisis I keep hearing about? Was I having a mental breakdown? I have no clue.

More logistically, it probably resulted more from all that free time I suddenly had to let my mind wander. I grew increasingly more anxious. I began to second guess nearly every decision I had to make — both personally and professionally. And I even had a panic attack or two.

However, from this experience came awareness, understanding, growth, and even hope. As of writing this, I’m in the middle of starting a new side venture, this time with more clarity. I have an Evernote note filled with new ideas that I continually add to each day. And, best of all, I’m content.

Here are the three things I learned from my most recent face-plant into failure.

There Are No Rabbits in the Rabbit Hole

It’s easy to dwell on the should’ve-beens as you ruminate on past failures. It’s also easy to find yourself caught up with the could’ve-beens as you daydream about how things could’ve gone differently.

If this sounds like you, here are two words you might need to hear — shit happens.

Don’t spend too much time spiraling down the rabbit hole like I did. One question turns into three, which turn into ten, and once you think you might be making progress…BAM! You’re at a dead end.

In this case, the elusive and metaphorical “rabbit” I was looking for didn’t live deep down in the rabbit hole. The rabbits I should’ve been looking for were out foraging in the wild, doing rabbit things, and waiting for nature to take its course.

So, after months of dwelling in the rabbit hole, I decided to give mindfulness a shot. I downloaded the Headspace app and sat on my couch for ten minutes every morning, drifting off to a part of my psyche that just let go. That’s where the rabbits I needed to find thrived in great numbers.

John Steinbeck once said, "Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."

Eventually, those rabbits began to multiply — as rabbits so stereotypically do — giving me tons of great ideas and motivation for new projects. I began to approach life with the same confidence and clarity I had before succumbing to my failures and even received a promotion at work during this time.

The lesson: Dwelling isn’t productive. Try living in the moment.

Take Time to Take Care

You should always take the time to do two things:

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Take care of your loved ones

When you’re sucked into your work or a passion project, it can be easy to forget what’s important in life — your health and your loved ones. 

Once failure creeps into your life, you may suddenly realize that either you’re always tired and cranky or that the support system you once had has slowly vanished before your eyes. Perhaps both.

Make time to fix this immediately.

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For me, I struggled to find motivation to exercise — an activity that I used to love. I also wasn’t eating as well as I should have been and began to grow weary of feeling like a gross pile of mush every day. I made a commitment to myself to go to the gym three or more times a week and to eat better on my lunch breaks in order to stop feeling so shitty every day.

I also realized that I had lost a lot of meaningful relationships over the years due to my commitment to my work, which was a pretty stark realization. I now make sure I accomplish everything I want to achieve each day before 7PM, that way I can spend time with my loved ones and cultivate a symbiotic support system in the process.

The lesson: Pay attention to your body and to your loved ones. They may be trying to tell you something.

Persevere: Your Best Work Is Ahead of You

Let me make this very clear: You. Have. Not. Peaked.

While I was in the midst of my failure-fueled existential crisis, my wife said to me, “You know what might be the problem? You’re trying to do too much in a short amount of time. Who says you need to accomplish everything right now?"

She was right. I spread myself too thin. And that’s when I decided I’d only try to manage one side hustle at a time — each one better than the last. The key was to learn from my mistakes as I continue to grow, and build up a bank of experience that will carry me toward my best work.

You may not realize it yet, but your best work is ahead of you too. As human beings, we’re constantly learning and finding new ways to create meaningful experiences. You just need to be resilient. You need to persevere.

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Dr. Christian Jarrett for 99u had this to say on how to build up your resilience:

"Optimists see failure as a chance to learn. They consider the changeable aspects of a disappointment that can be addressed and adjusted to make failure less likely next time. Pessimists, by contrast, will tend to blame the failure on a fundamental cause that can’t be changed, such as the belief that they don’t have what it takes. A related concept you’ve probably heard of is whether or not you have a growth mindset. Gritty optimists tend to have a growth mindset, believing that traits like intelligence can be nurtured. Pessimists instead see such things as fixed."

I now have a new outlook for moving forward, one that I hope will bring me more success — and yes, even more failure — in the future.

The lesson: The more you fail the better. The work you’ll eventually achieve is the result of your culminated failures.

* * *

For those of you who are struggling with recent failures, I urge you to take charge, own up to your failure and move forward with your next bout of brilliance. Without failure, there isn’t any progress. So, with that said, may you forever stare failure in the face.

And for anyone out there who has overcome a recent failure, feel free to share below the steps you took to move forward.