Want more wins? Try These 3 Ways to Use Failure as Rocket Fuel for Future Successes

When you think of Sir Richard Branson, what comes to mind? Perhaps charming billionaire, incredibly successful entrepreneur, or the media darling who has his own island?  All those monikers are true, and here’s another one to add to the list – failure.

Yes, Branson has crushed it with career highlights including Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, and his own entrée into the space race, Virgin Galactic. But did you know he unsuccessfully tried to enter the automobile industry with Virgin Cars, struck out of the soda wars with Virgin Cola, and his Virgin Digital music download site lasted less than 2 years?

None of these failures have held him back, or frozen Branson in his tracks. That’s because one of the key reasons he’s been so successful is his willingness to take risks. As Branson has said, “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”

His advice resonates deeply with me. I’ve had plenty of failures, both professional and personal, that ultimately lead to greater long-term success and fulfillment. Many of these I’ve shared in speaking presentations, videos, and my book Free and Clear: Get Unstuck and Live the Life You Want. But there’s one failure I had over 15 years ago which I’ve never talked about publicly that I’m particularly grateful for now.

Here’s the backstory. Back in 1992, I was 50 pounds above my natural weight and felt terrible. I lost those extra pounds over a 15-month period by eating healthier, exercising a lot, and journaling to give myself mental support. Fast forward to around 2008, when I was 15 years into maintaining that weight loss.

I saw there were plenty of books about dieting, but not much at the time about how to maintain your hard-won wellness for the long-term. So I decided to write a book about life after weight loss and started  interviewing medical experts, nutritionists and certified personal trainers. I talked with dozens of people nationwide who lost at least 50 pounds and kept it off past the five-year mark, which the National Weight Control Registry found is the point that you are most likely to permanently maintain your lost pounds.

Friends recommended a respected literary agent, and I spent months crafting what appeared to be a strong book proposal. My agent was confident we’d get a book contract, I’d land an advance and could start working on the book itself. Except, that’s not how it went down.

The publishing industry had embarked on a big shift and contacts that would have welcomed the book proposal a year earlier didn’t want to take a chance on a first-time author. After pitching me constantly for six months, the literary agent said the project wasn’t going to happen. It felt like a terrible failure, just around the time my business was unraveling amid the Great Recession. And I was devastated.

But now with hindsight, I’m so thankful that book didn’t happen. I would have been pigeon-holed in a specific writing category that only represented a small part of my identity. When I regrouped many years later that failure helped me understand that my deeper passion was helping people get unstuck and activate their full potential, which is what I focus my writing on today.

Now let’s talk about you. Maybe you failed at something—a business venture that went sideways or an investment opportunity that flopped spectacularly. No one was harmed in that process, except yourself.

Yet some people perceive failure as a death sentence of sorts (I sure did) where their self-esteem is permanently damaged. That’s because our culture often stigmatizes failure as something to be avoided at any cost. In some cases, it can feel like a trauma from which you need to recover.

However, here are 3 ways you can use previous failures as rocket fuel to claim more success moving forward:

1. Reframe what Failure Means

It’s time to kick the stigma of failure to the curb. Start by realizing that when you fail, it is because you are taking chances and trying something different in pursuit of a goal. It creates an opportunity to learn, grow, and achieve even more over time.

Giving yourself context can help. Along with Branson, some of the most successful people in the world experienced and came back from failure. Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Walt Disney were all fired from jobs along the way before achieving their greatest successes. Thomas Edison tried more than 2,000 times before he created the light bulb. It took five years and 5,126 failed prototypes for James Dyson to develop the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner. Iconic director Steven Spielberg was rejected both times he applied to film school at the University of Southern California.

Albert Einstein once said, “Success is failure in progress.” That poster child for brilliance certainly knew a lot about the topic. Einstein didn’t start talking until age four, was expelled from school, and was refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School, his top pick. Yet he still ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.

2. Practice Resilience.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, obstacles, and challenges. You don’t have to be born with that trait; anyone can learn how to become more resilient.  What matters is that in facing failure, you keep on going despite the emotional turmoil. Think about luminaries in your desired path who failed and then came back much better or bigger than before. Resilience was essential in their positive outcomes, and it will be for you as well.

Factors that help you become more resilient include cultivating optimism, increasing the belief in your own competency, and becoming more adaptable. Another big one is a willingness to forgive yourself, which can be the hardest person of all to forgive for perceived or actual setbacks. Check out my library of more than 100 articles and blog posts for specific tips on each of those factors.

3. Look for the Lesson.

There’s a lesson in every setback, obstacle, or failure we experience. I created this thinking exercise to help you gain more clarity about failure, identifying the key learnings or even silver linings  in whatever you face. If you like to write about your feelings, consider journaling the answers. Or, if you gain more insights during discussions with others, enlist a trusted friend or professional to ask these questions and record your responses.

Question prompts:

  1. Think about the failed circumstance. How did you feel when it happened? How do you feel about it today?
  2. What did you learn from this experience?
  3. What did it teach you about your capacity for resilience and growth?
  4. Consider your qualities which you are most proud of. How did dealing with this circumstance hone those skills and behaviors?
  5. If you were talking to your best friend, what would they say about how you handled this situation and the person you’ve become because of it?
  6. With all you have learned, what is now possible moving forward?
  7. Would these opportunities or possibilities have been available without your experience of failure?

How have you leveraged failure into a longer-term success?

Looking for an energizing, inspiring speaker that helps audiences get unstuck and achieve their full potential? Check out my keynote and breakout session topics.

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