How to Handle Failure and Become a Winner

Sad and stressed businessman going down on the career ladder, thinking about business fail while stepping on staircase with lots of equations and calculation in his mind.
How to handle failure during this coronavirus pandemic? Read this practical guide on how to triage the pain, analyze why you've failed, and implement a winning strategy.

Someone asked on Twitter what is the best way to handle failure? Out of all the answers I saw on the thread, half of the people didn’t have an answer, while the other half said something along the line of learning from failure or keeping on trying until you succeed. But how to learn from failure and become a winner? No one seems to have a solid strategy.


How to handle failure is a simple question that deserves a serious answer, especially during this coronavirus pandemic, when nothing seems to be going right. The inability to learn from past failures can stunt your growth. Unresolved emotional scars around failure can tarnish your confidence and satisfaction.


If you have been feeling frustrated, defeated, or powerless, this article is for you. Here I’ll show you the three steps to overcome failure and become a winner in the end.


Step one: Triage—What to do when failure hurts?

First, move your body to get past self-pity.

Second, talk to someone supportive for advice [note: It’s critical to do this after some forms of physical activity. I’ll explain the reason later]

Third, prepare to take action.


Step two: Analyze—How have you failed and what to do next for a better outcome?

First, understand the four elements of success.

Second, analyze what success element is missing.

Third, think about how to add the missing element to your action plan.


Step three: Implement—How to carry out your mission impossible?

First, find a worthy goal.

Second, master your delivery.

Third, turn everything you do into achievement toward your goal.


Now, let’s dive into this practical guide on how to handle failure and become a winner.

red rejection seal

Step one: Triage—What to do when failure hurts?


You’ve tried so hard on this one thing, and it fails. You can’t find a job. You lost your job. Your dream university rejected your application. Your business folded. Your spouse wants a divorce, and your children hate you. You can’t afford the failure, but it happens anyway.


The failure hurts deeply. You believe you aren’t good enough. You don’t have what it takes for success. You want to hide in a hole and cry like a baby, or stuff your face with chips, cookies, and ice cream. But neither strategies help with your long-term growth and happiness.


In my book, The Art of Good Enough, I talked about two types of goals in life: moving toward pleasure or moving away from pain. Those who move toward pleasure know what they want and make efforts to reach their rewards. When they encounter pain on their journey, they see it as necessary before their favorable outcomes. Those who move away from pain live their lives passively, letting fear guide their courses of action. Although they minimize the risk of failure, they’re far from success.


Think stopping trying will make you happier? If every time you fail, you put down a sign that says don’t go there again, you’ll soon find yourself in a tight space surrounded by these signs.


Life is like the ocean filled with big fish. If you want to catch one, you have to learn how to deal with the unexpected change of weather and current, pay attention not to make stupid mistakes that can get you killed. Say, on your first few fish runs, you get nothing. If you quit right there, you don’t deserve the big fish. You haven’t learned the skills of a fisherman yet. If you put in the work, your result will change.


If you tell yourself I’m happy with just eating seaweeds every day, fine. Go on with your seaweed life. Every time you see a fisherman pulled into the harbor with a boatload of big fish, you need to have the will to calm the envy and keep telling yourself big fish are not for you. If you’re a parent, you have to instill that idea in your kids’ heads as they grow. Otherwise, they’ll want to venture out to the ocean one day and catch their own big fish without your guidance or advice.


If you don’t want a life on seaweeds, here’s an encouraging truth for you: comparing to those who have been thinking and talking about their big plans to go out to the ocean, you’re light-years ahead of them. You’ve tried it at least once, and you’ve lived to tell the tale. Now get back to what you should do when you desperately need to nurse your wounded confidence:


First, move your body to get past self-pity.


You can take a walk while listening to music, do a hardcore workout until you’re sweaty and exhausted, or anything else that can get your heart racing. The idea is to get you away from the place where you first received the bad news and into a new environment, which often brings a fresh perspective. It may take time to reset your mind. Repeat the same process until you’re capable of analyzing your failure without getting emotional.


It’s no coincidence physical challenges lead to major breakthroughs. Cheryl Strayed started the gruesome Pacific Crest Trail to mourn her mother, her broken marriage, and everything else she had lost. After over a thousand miles hike, she emerged strengthened and ultimately healed. She went on to write and publish her famed memoir, Wild, which was made into a movie starred by Reese Witherspoon. Put the miles in, and you’ll see how far you can go.

“Sometimes when it seems life is falling apart, it’s really that the pieces are falling into place.”

Second, talk to someone supportive for advice.


Humans are emotional. All need support and love, no matter how different we are as individuals. If you have a good friend, a trusted family member, a loving partner, a good mentor, talk to them about your failure. By this time, you should have recovered somewhat from the failure. The bleeding cut starts to heal, but the pain lingers.


Tell your supports how you feel and what you’ve learned from failure. Ask what they think you should do. Because they are not you, they’ll likely share with you new perspectives. Think about their advice while you take another walk, doing another heart-pumping workout. You’ll start to see why you’ve failed and how you can fare better next time.


The reason I recommend this as the second step and not the first: When you’re stunned by failure, emotions overpowers your mind. You aren’t ready to think logically yet. You’re too vulnerable to take in advice, even the good ones. If you rush out the moment the bad news came, you lose the opportunity to overcome something yourself. Mental toughness requires practice, just like you work out to build muscles. Don’t be a mental marshmallow. Learn to endure defeat is vital for your future growth.  


If you don’t have support, work on building one once you recover from failure. No one can succeed alone. You’ll need the collective energy and momentum to get you to top speed. Meanwhile, learn to process your feelings by writing about them on paper. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin, has research extensively on the health benefits of expressive writing. He discovered writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma.


When participants write nonstop while exploring their innermost thoughts and feelings without inhibition, it helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. The writing process may enable them to regulate their emotions and break free of the endless mental cycling typical of brooding or rumination.


Words also bring clarity to your thoughts where you can find answers to your questions.


Third, prepare to take action.


Once you have a detailed plan to improve your odds of winning, you’ll feel more hopeful and thus eager to put the sting of failure behind you. It’s like spotting the lighthouse beacon in the dark, vast ocean. You now have a purpose and a method to forge ahead.

“The sooner you write an action plan,
the easier it is to get over failure.”

Arianna Huffington’s second book was rejected by 36 publishers before she created the now ubiquitously recognizable Huffington Post empire. Even Huffington Post itself wasn’t a success right away. When it launched, there were dozens of highly negative reviews about its quality and potential. Huffington improved its content over time and overcame those initial bouts of failure and has cemented her name as one of the most successful online outlets in the world.


By the way, Arianna was an immigrant from Greece. She moved to England when she was 16 and became president of the Girton College, Cambridge’s debating society, The Cambridge Union at age 21.


Step two: Analyze—How have you failed and what to do next for a better outcome?


Now that you have endured the sting of failure, processed your lessons, and taken in advice, it’s time to analyze your failure methodically and draw up your winning strategy.


In this step, it’s important to reframe your failure whenever you hear the negative voice in your head.


Part of my current job responsibility was to precept pharmacy students and residents on their rotations. I recently spoke to a group of Doctor of pharmacy students from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In 2018, UCSF transitioned from a traditional four-year curriculum to a three-year, year-round program to enable students to graduate one year sooner.   


The students were concerned that they would graduate at the same time as the last class of the four-year program. Because of their compact new curriculum, they had less time for internship comparing to students from the traditional program.


I said, “Why think of it as a disadvantage? Look at it this way-you learn the knowledge and skill in three years instead of four. That means you guys are more efficient and capable of performing under stress.” They laughed and told me they had never thought of it as an advantage.  

purple notebook with black pen and brown branches

First, understand the four elements of success.


Success depends on many factors: timing, people, environment, and approach. All of these components have to work together. If you fail, analyze each of these elements, figure out exactly where things go wrong, correct them, and try again. If you still fail, go through the same process until you get it right.


Knowledge is what we learn from others; wisdom is the ability to use that knowledge to achieve our goals. Nothing beats the satisfaction of finally figuring out how to become good at something after multiple failures. Begin building your wisdom today and teach your children to do the same. They’ll learn much more from failure than success.


“Knowledge is what we learn from others; wisdom is the ability to use that knowledge to achieve our goals.”


Here are examples of failing each of the four elements.


Wrong Timing


Robin Lippincott’s novel Mr. Dalloway, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, came out right after Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer for The Hours, also based on Wool’s novel. The first line of the New York Times review is “Talk about bad timing.”


In 2008, Kia released the Borrego, a body-on-frame SUV named after a desert in California. It checked all the large SUV boxes- V6 and V8 engines, 4-wheel drive, and a 7,500-lb towing capacity. As a 15 MPG vehicle launched in the recession and $4 gas, it was discontinued after only a year.


Kia could have postponed releasing Borrego until the economy recovered, and the gas price fell back to normal.


Wrong People


Meryl Streep was rejected for a role in the reboot of King Kong (1976). Producer Dino De Laurentiis’s son took the actress to meet with his father. He said to his son, in Italian, “ [why do you bring me this] ugly thing,” according to Streep.

three Meryl Streep portraits side by side

The now Academy Award-winning actress was only 26 at the time. Since Streep spoke Italian, she sardonically replied to De Laurentiis she was sorry not to be beautiful enough for King Kong. You see, even a brilliant actor like Streep got rejected by someone who only judged her by her looks.


After receiving the insulting rejection, Streep didn’t question her talent or stop her artistic pursuit. She played many memorable leading roles in various movies and holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations of any actor in movie history.



Wrong Environment


Albert Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers of our time, didn’t speak until he was four. His family nicked named him “the dopey one.” He also failed his entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic school in Zurich at sixteen.


Nearly everyone failed to see Einstein as the burgeoning physicist. Even his father, until his death, considered his son to be a major failure. After graduating from college with a physics teaching diploma, Einstein couldn’t find an academic job and worked as a patent clerk in Bern, Germany in 1903 — two years before he introduced his Special Theory of Relativity.


Can you imagine if Einstein had worked and retired as a patent clerk?


Wrong Approach


This Inc article tells us this story.


It can be hard for some to imagine now, but there was a time when video rental stores like Blockbuster Video were a regular part of your weekend plans. Online video streaming services like Netflix and small kiosk-based rental systems like Redbox destroyed the old video rental business model. Blockbuster came to the party late, even though it got an early invite.


In 2000, Netflix proposed that it would handle Blockbuster’s online component for it, and Blockbuster could host its in-store component (thus eliminating the need for mailed DVDs). Instead of seizing the offer and securing its crowned status in the digital age, according to an interview with former Netflix CFO Barry McCarthy, “They just about laughed us out of their office.”


The result–Blockbuster went belly up, and Netflix thrived. And since Netflix is behind such shows as House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Daredevil, I’d argue the world is a better place because of Blockbuster’s blunder.

Second, analyze what element is missing in your failure.


Now, it’s your turn to examine your failure and figure out what costs your chance of success. A Clear understanding of why you have failed can help you grow tremendously.


There’s a survival show called Alone on the history channel, where ten contestants are dropped off at various locations in one remote area. Whoever stays the longest in the wilderness wins the half-million-dollar prize. The caveat is each contestant can choose only ten items from a pre-approved survival gear list. They must carry around the camera gear to film themselves as they survive. In season five, they invited ten past contestants back for redemption in Mongolia.


Even though every contestant claimed they had learned the lessons of failure from their past experiences, I saw their old behaviors resurface as a viewer. One by one, they broke down at various points by starvation, monstrous climate, and extreme isolation. The season winner was a 25-year-old man who had developed strategies against these hostile elements, drawing from his previous experience. Once again, learning from failure leads you to success.


Years ago, I started my career working for airline executives with a business degree. I worked hard to prove myself. One of my female coworkers went out of her way to make my work life difficult. Fresh out of college, I was naïve and idealistic. The more recognition I received at work, the meaner she treated me. Soon I heard the rumors she spread about me and felt alienated from the rest of the team. Realizing the corporate world wasn’t for me, I started attending evening classes for a master’s degree in Engineering. I left the job soon after I received my diploma.


As you can see, I failed at my first job because of the wrong environment. I also used the wrong approach to deal with the situation. Instead of retreating to a corner feeling wounded and isolated, I could have talked to that coworker and explained to her I wasn’t trying to outshine her. We could work together as a team for joint recognition. I could have spoken to my other teammates about my side of the story to clear the misunderstanding among us.    


One of my husband’s friends interviewed at Salesforce in the early 2000s and got the job offer. He eventually joined DoubleClick, an ad servicing company that was later bought by Google. Compared to DoubleClick, Salesforce was a much smaller company then. The friend turned down the offer because he didn’t see its $17 billion annual revenue potential today. The lesson here is—the wrong approach. When you are job hunting, don’t judge a company by its size, look for its potential.


The same applies to relationships as well. Don’t judge a person by his/her face value; look at his/her potential. Someone I knew dated a law school student. They were very much in love and were supposed to be married upon his graduation. Because her fiancé couldn’t afford her dream wedding, she broke off the engagement. Later, he married someone else and became a partner at a private law firm. She has regretted her decision ever since.

Third, think about how to add the missing element to your action plan.


Keep taking those walks or continue working out to free up your mind to think creatively. I find most of my writing ideas from the long walk I take every day.


If you’re unable to add the missing element to your action plan, ask for advice. Search for people who have done what you’re inspired to do. Draw inspiration from them by learning everything about them.


Connect with them on LinkedIn or other social media outlets. Discover their interests and problems and offer help. Once you build a relationship with them, they’ll be more willing to help you.


Steve Jobs hired Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in 1984 as a summer intern. Working as an assembly language programmer at Apple, Benioff kept in touch with Jobs over the years, especially when he was starting up Salesforce. In the early 2000s, when Benioff was feeling stuck about Salesforce’s direction, he headed straight to Jobs for guidance. After viewing a demo of the Salesforce customer relationship management service, Jobs advised Benioff to do three things: One, Salesforce better be ten times larger in twenty-four months or less, or else it’s over. Two, you have to close a huge massive customer, like Avon. Three, you’ve got to build an application economy. Benioff took the advice to heart and built the cloud-based software giant.


If you really want to succeed, find a compatible mentor, and build a mutually beneficial relationship that can catapult your career and business. You may benefit from his/her sage advice on happiness as well.    


Here’s an example of someone who created the missing element while suffering in extreme conditions.


Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and a Holocaust survivor of four different concentration camps. He was the founder of logotherapy (literally “healing through meaning”), a meaning-centered school of psychotherapy. He authored over 39 books. His most notable book is Man’s Search for Meaning, written based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.


For three years, he lived through starvation and torture in four camps. He lost his beloved wife and all of his family and observed most of his fellow inmates die. Being stripped of all means to carry on his normal life, he kept his mind active, planning the lectures he would give after his release, using the material from the death camps to illustrate points he wanted to teach.


As a devoted teacher, his careful planning of the future lectures kept his spirit and body alive in hideous deadening conditions. He survived the death camps and went on to realize his vision of using his experiences as a great healer.


Here’s a paragraph from Man’s Search for Meaning:


“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”


As one reader aptly remarked on the book’s Amazon review page, “If you’re in pain, read this book. If you’re scared, read this book. If you are lost, read this book. If you are happy, read this book. If you have time, read this book. If you don’t have time, read this book. Read this book, read this book.”

“If you're in pain, read this book. If you're scared, read this book. If you are lost, read this book. If you are happy, read this book. If you have time, read this book. If you don't have time, read this book. Read this book, read this book.”

Step three: Implement—How to carry out your mission impossible?


First, find a worthy goal.


Are you thinking about landing a dream job during the coronavirus pandemic? If your old job is no longer viable, what transferable skills do you have that are valuable in other industries? Identify those industries and rank them by stability, pay, growth potential, and difficulty to break into. I wrote extensively on decision-making in this article. Pick the highest-ranking industry to start your job search.


Find the hiring manager(s) on LinkedIn, Twitter, other social media platforms. Study his/her posts and tweets. Find out what he/she likes, shares, or retweets. Knowing the hiring manager ahead of time can help you prepare for the interview. Do not direct message (DM) or message him/her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or anywhere else unless you’re invited to do so. Otherwise, you’ll risk being viewed as either unprofessional or downright obnoxious.  


Next, study industry trends by reading industry news, get familiar with industry-related terminology. If you feel rusty, take some free classes from top universities on sites like edX, Class Central, and Coursera, to boost industry-specific knowledge to boost your resume.


If you’ve been trying to sell your artistic creations online with no success, start by looking for people who are already successful in the field. Study their websites to learn about their products, pricing, and distribution channels. Go to local trade association events and speak to people who have already been doing what you’re hoping to start. During the coronavirus pandemic, their in-person events are likely to be held online, saving you the cost of travel and attendance.


Ask people about their journeys to success, and what words of wisdom they can share with you. Offer samples of your products for sale on their platforms to test the market. To maximize the chance of collaboration, tell them they can keep all the profits from your samples.


If your products sell well, propose a mutually beneficial profit split so you can make money by using their established clientele. If yours don’t do well, ask for their feedback, and follow up with a revised design. You can collaborate with multiple experts while building a following for your own brand. When the time comes, you can begin your solo venture. By then, people will want to ask you for words of advice.

Women climbing mountain

Second, master your delivery.


How you present yourself and communicate with others often plays a vital role in your success.


Take the example of a job interview. The key to making a killer impression is to master the art of storytelling. Say you used to be a hotel manager and now you’re applying for a job in public relation. Instead of worrying about your lack of experience, pick a couple of stories from your hotel managing experience that show your ability, personality, creativity, and maybe even a sense of humor. If you can make the hiring managers laugh or say ‘wow,’ you know they like you as a person. Likeability is highly desirable in the workplace.


If you have a troubled relationship, start resolving the tension by being open and sincere. Listen to what your partner has to say, admit your mistakes, and make plans for improvement. Communicate your thoughts. Explain why you’ve failed to understand and support your partner in the past, and how you plan to make amends. Ask for a three-month tryout period for a second chance and keep your promise.


More on strengthening relationships here.


One important lesson in relationships is, know what to say to get your message across. Criticizing your partner will not make him/her a better person but driving him/her away. Communicate your love first, then suggest your partner to try new ways to strengthen your relationship. Don’t play the blame game.

“It’s better to be in love than to be right.”

Third, turn everything you do into achievement toward your goal.


As I mentioned earlier, I precept pharmacy residents at work. For those unfamiliar with pharmacy residency, it’s a one to two-year training post-doctoral training program on site to gain work experience. After a resident is matched to a residency site, he/she has an excellent chance of getting hired upon completion of the training. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many hospitals are implementing hiring freezes. There’s no job offer for my current resident, even though she has the skills and knowledge to be an excellent clinician.


During residency training, residents often perform drug utilization reviews to evaluate the appropriateness of drug usage, safety, and efficacy. Recently, my resident reviewed Tocilizumab use (a monoclonal antibody treatment used in severe coronavirus infection) at our hospital. When she presented to the ICU physicians, Infectious Diseases specialist, and critical care pharmacists, it was well received.


After her presentation, I told her to contact her fellow residents at other hospitals within the area to see if they have done a similar evaluation on Tocilizumab. She can pool her data with others, write a research paper, and submit to a trade journal for publication.


Even though a publication won’t land her a job right away, it will make her stand out in a pool of applicants once a job opens up.


To summarize what we’ve talked about above:


Step one: Triage—What to do when failure hurts?

First, move your body to get past self-pity.

Second, talk to someone supportive for advice

Third, prepare to take action.


Step two: Analyze—How have you failed and what to do next for a better outcome?

First, understand the four elements of success.

Second, analyze what success element is missing.

Third, think about how to add the missing element to your action plan.


Step three: Implement—How to carry out your mission impossible?

First, find a worthy goal.

Second, master your delivery.

Third, turn everything you do into achievement toward your goal.


There you have it, a practical guide for you to rise above failure and become the winner!

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Dr. Ivy Ge

Doctor of Pharmacy, author of The Art of Good Enough. She writes to inspire women to design their own fate. Her writings and interviews have been featured on MSNBC, Thrive Global, Working Mother magazine, Parentology, and The Times of India.

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