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How Do You Talk About Your Past Failures?

Let’s face it; we’ve all failed at one point or another.

How can you demonstrate your failure in a positive light so that others perceive it just as positively as your successes?

It’s important to understand that failing at something doesn’t mean you are a failure. It took me years to figure that one out! What helped me understand was to learn about a few good examples of failure that came from programs, people and items we only identify with success.

  • "I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  Michael Jordan loved sports but failed to make his high school basketball team as a sophomore.
  • Twelve publishers turned down J.K. Rowling before one gave the first Harry Potter book a chance.  Even then, she was told there was no financial reward in children’s books.
  • People Magazine named Brandi Chastain one of the 25 Most Intriguing People of 1999.  She scored the winning goal with her penalty kick during the final game in the 1999 Women’s Soccer World Cup game against China.  However, several games earlier, during the quarterfinals of that same tournament in a game against Germany, Chastain scored against her own American team in an "own goal," which is an accidental kick past the goalie into her own net.
  • The script for Back to the Future, written and directed by Bob Zemeckis, was rejected by various film studios.  When finally, released, Back to the Future became the most successful film of the year, grossing more than $380 million worldwide.  It won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Ronald Reagan even quoted the film in his 1986 State of the Union Address. The film also marked the beginning of a franchise, with sequels Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III released in 1989 and 1990, as well as an animated series, theme park ride and video game.
  • Ruth Handler debuted her doll, known as Barbie, at an American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959. It was not an instant success. Many claimed that Barbie provided little girls with an unrealistic and harmful example and fostered a negative body image. Despite the criticism, sales of Barbie-related merchandise continued to soar, topping 1 billion dollars annually by 1993. Since 1959, more than 800 million dolls in the Barbie family have been sold around the world and Barbie is considered by some to be a bona fide global icon.

Most people avoid discussing failure and some have a hard time seeing their “failures” as positive and moving on. So how do you overcome and subsequently talk about your failures? And why should you talk about them at all? 

Here are some good reasons why you should embrace failure and talk about it:

Failure demonstrates innovation: In order to innovate, you have to accept that your idea might fail. When companies need innovation, they often look for someone who has not only succeeded, but who has also failed. This isn’t true for every industry, but I’ve heard decision makers secretly look for people who have failed at something, even if it’s not on the formal job description (and I’ve never seen it!). Companies who seek to build innovation, Venture Capital backed firms, firms trying to develop new products, and firms in changing industries are more likely to seek a candidate who’s failed than say, a CPA firm.

Failure demonstrates willingness to take risks: People who take intelligent risks create more value than people who don’t take risks. That doesn’t mean you should make plans to jump off your building with a parachute or take reckless business risks. But understand that businesses and people who don’t take risks don’t grow. Experience with failure will enable you to help others decide which risks make sense.

Past failure is a huge learning experience: Failure means that you get to look back on it, and think “what could I have done to avoid this?” or “how could I have made this turn out better?” Past failure means you’ve learned on someone else’s payroll and now have had a valuable learning experience to draw from so you can help others make good decisions. People who have already failed are better at avoiding failure a second time.  These things make you a good candidate in a job interview or a good candidate to take a business risk on.

Above all, knowing how to talk about your past failures will give you the confidence you need in any situation.   It does for me and it can do the same for you.

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