How to make best use of career failures?

I’ve missed more than 9,000 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

After relationships, your career – the work you do, your daily grind – takes a big chunk of what your life is all about. Throughout your lifetime, it is estimated you spend 33.3 percent working. That equates to one of every three hours of your existence. This is why career failures need to be talked about.

Career failures do not equate to life failures. However, they mean something significant, and that meaning depends on what you choose to do with it. You can decide to get the best of them or allow them to get the best of you.

This article posits a framework for you to deal with anything that takes the semblance of a career failure. And you can, like Michael Jordan, be happy about your failures because they will ultimately help you to be successful.

What does career failure mean?

Illustration of a career failure

People define failures in different ways. Career failures take on that aura too. What sounds like a career failure to one person might not be to another. This makes the subject somewhat muddy waters to wade through. However different those meanings might be, a foundational part of it is the inability to achieve desired goals.

Getting fired from your job or denied an anticipated promotion is as bad as flunking the interview for the desired position. So also is missing out on a juicy transfer and being stuck with a demotion-like transfer. These events are difficult to accept because of the heavy investments that have gone into expecting the realities of these things. They are what we can call career failures.

Entrepreneurs are not particular when it comes to this subject. They experience bohemian career failures. How do you classify an enterprise built with sweat and blood and cash collapsing in a fraction of the time it took to make it? Their kind of failure may seem too big to be regarded as a career failure. However, by definition, it is. It is their life work, and they failed to achieve their set goals.

Being dissatisfied with your work can also mean you fail at what you do. Dissatisfaction results in you not utilizing your full potential. When your job makes you feel useless and incapable, some people believe you have failed at that job.

We recently have had massive layoffs of workers and voluntary resignations due to job dissatisfaction. It is happening at unprecedented rates, and society is bound to experience the consequences if nothing is done personally and socially.

What causes career failures?

Many things can cause career failures. Ranging from factors within the control of an individual to those beyond him, failing at your work is more of an orchestra than a solo performance.

Some of these things may look insignificant, but they compound and wreak havoc in one’s life. They start as small getaways till they become unbreakable habits. On the other hand, some of these things are due to ignorance. You don’t just know that they are consequential.

Some of those factors that cause career failures include the following.


Laziness is a significant factor that comes to mind. When an individual refuses to commit to working hard to attain his desired goals, failure is inevitable.

Many are disorganized and lack the discipline to focus their energies on setting goals and completing tasks. This, among other things, results in low productivity. Working hard alone doesn’t guarantee success. Nonetheless, it is a crucial factor to consider.

In addition, people who lack the discipline to remain consistent at what they do are bound to fail. What do you think of an employee who arrives at work late more times than he’s early or a manager who records wins once in a blue moon? Of course, these are extreme cases, but the point is that being inconsistent in doing your best work is a recipe for failure.

Unclear Purpose

A person who works hard without a clear picture of his aim fetches water with a basket. To succeed at what you do, you need a well-defined goal. Knowing what your purpose is will guide the why and how you act. An employee without purpose is bound to be fired. They cannot contribute anything meaningful to the employer’s growth.

A clear understanding of your abilities and how you can use them are integral to a well-defined purpose. When you understand how to use your abilities, you will surely know how to help others (and your company) grow.

Purpose fuels passion. How passionate you are about your work will determine how much you will be willing to commit to it. A passionate worker will devote all necessary to do a beautiful job. However, you can’t go to such lengths without an apparent reason.

Poor Relationships

We don’t live in isolation, nor do we work that way. On the contrary, people are crucial to the success or failure of an endeavor. And more times than often, relationships with fellow workers have significant impacts on one’s career progress.

Lousy relationships with colleagues, especially bosses, can set the stage for dissatisfaction in the workplace. Your boss has a significant influence on what your daily work-life looks like. So you don’t want to be creating an insincere relationship with your boss.

The quality of your relationships, as well as the quantity, matters to building a successful career. A robust network might be the key to leveraging the necessary support to achieve the desired goal. For example, a prospective applicant’s preparation for an interview will be aided by valuable insights from relevant contacts in his network.

Lack of Relevant Skills

Possessing competitive skills gives you an advantage over your peers. Conversely, you lose relevance when you lack them, and it becomes difficult to sustain success.

These skills vary according to the nature of the work. However, soft skills like presentation and basic IT skills are common skills required in modern workplaces.

The inability to present yourself well is also a cause of failure. Great presentations make the presenter look more competent than they are. Poor displays do just the opposite. This ties in with the use of social media concerning work.

Social media is a tool, and misuse will hurt the user. Social media provides an excellent opportunity to build networks and engage in activities to help our careers. However, it can also be the downfall of a worker too. We have seen examples of how people lost their jobs via inappropriate use of social media platforms.

Fixed Mindset

To build successful careers, working hard purposefully is an excellent foundation. In addition, you need to possess what Carol Dweck, a psychologist, called a growth mindset. This means you are open to new ideas and constantly seeking to improve yourself.

People with a fixed mindset cannot adapt to new changes. They believe that they cannot be better than their current reality. Therefore, they do not try to improve. They are like managers who stick to old methods with no significant result when introduced better and newer ways.

Change is the only constant. When one becomes resistant to new things, it becomes hard to succeed. The world of work keeps evolving. You need to keep investing in yourself and grow along. This is how you can stay relevant and conquer career failures.

What are the effects of career failures?

Career failures potentially impact one’s life in negative ways. It sets up a spiral that can quickly put a human being at the lowest point possible.

Loss of livelihood

If your work is your source of livelihood, that’s a big problem. It becomes much more difficult to survive. Not having an income affects everything from feeding to finding shelter and possessing basic needs like clothing.

Consider a breadwinner who lost his job. Those who depend on him and themselves are deprived of their livelihood. The effects of a career failure affect more than one person. The scope of the impact extends beyond limits that can be repairable.

Psychological trauma

On a personal level, denial of an anticipated promotion or failing the desired job interview equates to a failure to attain one’s desires. And this can lead to identity issues and psychological distress.

Various studies have correlated job loss with an increased risk for mental health issues like depression. In addition, some emotional trauma may be physically debilitating. This further prevents the individual from making ends meet.

Health Issues

Physical malaise can also be a direct consequence of career failure. In addition, the lack of steady income can cause some unhealthy lifestyle changes that will result in poor health management.

Many may result in excessive alcohol intake to alleviate their woes. But this habit worsens their health conditions and creates problems for them. These illnesses will most likely lead to death due to a lack of funds to seek proper treatment.

Loss of Access to Opportunities

Career failure can limit one’s access to opportunities. It becomes harder to be visible and relevant when you do not have a channel. This results in a big blow to the societal status of such individuals.

It is challenging for individuals fired from their jobs to get another job. In addition, regulations and industry practices may make it difficult to use your previous employer as a reference to get another job. Some benefits that are associated with a job might also be lost.

Sometimes, career failures are setbacks to quick career progression. For example, denied promotion or transfer may be behind your colleagues on the same career paths.

Societal Woes

The effects of career failures also have societal consequences. An individual’s contribution to society comes from the work he does. His inability to do that deprives society of that value.

Also, persons who have lost their means of livelihood will have no means to make ends meet. This may lead them to engage in illegal activities, and consequently, the crime rate may increase.

Career failures are big things, yes, but…

In his book “Failing Forward”, John C Maxwell wrote that failures are opportunities or stumbling blocks depending on how you see them. Failures can be blessings in disguise. However, you have to see them that way.

These benefits that come from a changed perspective on failure include the following.

Career failures are honest feedback that makes you smarter

When you fail at something, it might mean you are doing it the wrong way. With proper evaluation, you can identify those things that caused the failure. For example, a denied promotion may mean you have not met the required qualifications even if you think you have. The same goes for failed interviews. You will be able to identify gaps in your knowledge and abilities – areas you need to improve.

This feedback is crucial to getting better at what you do. Failure provides one avenue to get them. When rejected, an early career scientist learns to write a better grant proposal to obtain the necessary funding.

Failures provide insight into what doesn’t work. When a business enterprise fails, the businessman is forced to reappraise his plans and approach. Understanding what worked and what didn’t will inform the next enterprise.

Career failures provide opportunity to do better

If you fail at your job and you eventually find out why you fail, you will be able to do better. Once you have identified the gaps in the knowledge and abilities, you find it easier to excel at your next interview. And when the next promotion exercise comes around, you won’t be surprised you are promoted.

Failure pushes you beyond your comfort zone and, thus, opportunities to develop creative solutions. Lean into and accept your failures. You find yourself doing better than you thought.

Career failures can be indicators of job suitability

As crazy as it sounds, failing at your job might hint at your unsuitability for the job’s demands. There are different kinds of jobs, and you are not made for all of them. On the other hand, career failures might jolt you to reality and get you to find a job that maximizes your full potential.

Career failures are opportunities to learn

Failures are crucial parts of the learning process. When you fail at something, it probably means something is wrong. Thus, you can have the opportunity to learn something new about your work. The latest information is required for you to succeed.

Evidence posits that we learn more from our failures than our successes. Failure puts us in that ‘unsatisfied’ state helps us learn faster. Failure helps you keep your ego in check and remain humble enough to understand. 

How to deal with career failure?

A famous study by researchers in Northwestern University on early career failures and their effects on scientists revealed some insights. Their study focused on two groups of scientists: the narrow-win and the narrow-miss groups. These two groups were similar in all traits and aspects as early-career scientists. The only difference was that the narrow-miss group had an early career setback (not receiving the NIH funding for their research) while the narrow-wins were lucky, and they got funded.

The researchers acknowledged that many factors determine career success for a scientist; however, their study indicates that scientists with early career setbacks had a 6.1% increase in chances of publishing popular research papers.

Their most plausible explanation for this scenario was that the failure made these scientists better. They were able to make their failures work for them in the long run.

Career failures are like every other failure we will encounter as humans living on this planet. However, we have the power to turn these failures into spectacular successes. Let’s remember that power is transferring energy, that is, doing the work.

Failures remain permanent scars if we do not take action. Many successful people today attribute their success to their previous failures. Through their failures, they have cultivated resilience, which sets them apart from the rest.

You can become resilient too by learning how to make the best of your failures. Here is a simple framework you can apply to get the best out of career failures.


First, it is essential to acknowledge the reality of the failure. The stages of grief begin with acceptance because it is a game-changer. Accepting whatever the failure might look like helps make it easier to shed the emotional burden. Accepting is recognizing that you have a problem and need to find a way to solve it.

Please, know that your job is not your identity. It is difficult to get over failures and make the most of them when you don’t differentiate your job role from yourself. Don’t conflate the expectations of your job with your life expectations.

A healthy view of career failures starts with the understanding that you failed but are not a failure. Therefore, you have every chance to succeed in that endeavor again, or in any effort you choose.

If you get fired from your job, though it is difficult to do, you must accept that you do not have a job. This is how you can gain your focus and break attachment from the job. It puts you in control of the situation.

Accepting helps you take responsibility for your actions. You should acknowledge the part you played in the failure. Quit blaming external factors alone.

To accept is to admit that you need to embrace changes to progress in your career. This is what makes it easy to move on to the next step.

Revisit your failure

The next step is to do an honest evaluation – analyzing the failure and events that lead to it. This evaluation will help you identify factors that led to the failure. A proper assessment should expose your existing skills, the gaps in your knowledge, weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities.

Tools like SWOT analysis and Retrospectives are great places to start for an objective evaluation. However, you should be able to go granular and be specific to the particular situation of the failure. This thorough and accurate assessment helps uncover insights that guide your subsequent actions. 

Another aspect of evaluating is seeking feedback. Honest feedback gives you external views that you might not get. Experts in your field of the profession are optimal sources for these kinds of feedback. Your colleagues are also good sources. When receiving feedback, avoid vague responses. Instead, try to get specific answers. Unclear feedback tends to complicate the problem.

Figure out your work expectations. Every industry demands certain traits and skills. Try to identify your own and see if you meet those benchmarks. For example, suppose you are in the tech industry. In that case, there are unspoken rules of being familiar with specific processes and programs. If you want those things, there are limited chances of success in that industry.

This step gives you factual and comprehensive information about yourself and your work. With this knowledge, you will be able to make rational decisions and take concrete steps to set you up for success in your career pursuits.

Reframe and redefine your metrics

After you do an evaluation, you must take a step back and take a fresh look at the failure. At this point, your emotions would have cooled down, and you would have a more rational assessment. But, again, this helps you think of better ways to proceed.

A fresh look at the problem involves seeing it from different perspectives. It also means measuring them against your standards of success and failure. It will be interesting to find that so many times, what we call failures are opportunities for better pursuits.

A clear understanding of the purpose is required to complete this step. You need to ask yourself why your definition of success and failure is. Your prior failure might result from an unclear explanation of your aims or misaligned goals.

Another core activity of this step is setting goals that align with your purpose and work expectations. In the preceding step, you have an idea of your capabilities and what is expected of you. At this point, you will outline particular goals that

  • You are interested in
  • Aligns with your work expectations
  • Matches your abilities.

Humans enjoy what interests them. Suppose you can enjoy your work, make ends meet, and make valuable contributions to society. In that case, you will indeed find career success, and failures will only be stepping stones.

Act, not react

You act on purpose, and you react to the purpose. These are two different things. When you have a course of action, failures are only indicators that your plans are not feasible or inadequate. The preceding steps help you to recognize this. Once you have identified the inadequacies of your objectives, you find a way around that. 

Failing a job interview can mean two things. First, you could not convince the hirers that you have the skills required. Second, you don’t have the skills required. An honest evaluation will expose you to these facts. What to do is now apparent.

However, you won’t even evaluate if you’re reacting. Reacting leaves you at the mercy of the circumstances. You will always be rowing against the tides.

To act also means to change the behaviors that are not serving you. For example, some of your current behaviors might be pushing you away from fulfilling your purpose. For example, you might need to start living by healthy and productive habits. It might also be to beef up your presentation skills.

Start with the most minor step possible and keep to it. You will gradually improve and set yourself up for success in your endeavors.

Seek support and share your failure

Talking to a close acquaintance is a great way to manage the many emotions accompanying a failure. Their support will help you accept the failure, do an objective assessment and gain perspective, and find encouragement to try again.

Professionals are advised to get mentors. Mentors are guides.

Evaluating your failure becomes easier if you have a mentor or a coach to guide you. You can also seek professional help from a career guidance expert. Their advice will help you clear your doubts, dig out your deepest fears and identify areas where you need to improve.

Also, search for ways to learn from others who are where you want to be. Read books about setbacks leaders in your industry have overcome and how they managed them. Use their stories to garner enthusiasm or motivation to move beyond your failure.

Regardless of what stage you are on your career path, failures can be opportunities for tremendous success. The framework presented above can help you spot opportunities that accompanied the failure.

Some famous career failure examples, and how these people made the most of it

The following stories are examples of how people made the most of their failures by not allowing it to deter them from trying. Some reached rock bottom more than once, but they could still rise to stardom.

Creating the Disney Legacy

Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse drawing

You probably know that Walt Disney is the founder of the media behemoth that bears his name. However, do you know he was fired from his job at a newspaper because the editor felt he lacked imagination?

His legacy as a great animator of our time has overshadowed the string of failures that beset his career. His first company went bankrupt, and he had huge debts to clear for many years for his career as an animator.

In all these instances of failure, Disney found a way to create opportunities for success. In his own words: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all the troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”

The Story behind the Oprah Winfrey Show

Oprah Winfrey with US Peesident Barack Obama

Oprah started her career as a news anchor in Baltimore. But that  job was short-lived as she was fired for being “emotionally invested in her stories.” As a result, she was deemed unfit for television. However, she kept sharpening her skills. She wasn’t deterred.

When taken on a new job as a talks show host in Chicago, she quickly turned the show around from a low ratings show to the number one show in a couple of months. That show later became the popular The Oprah Winfrey Show, a show that had millions of viewers across the world. Yet, surprisingly, Oprah has made a fortune from a job where she was said to be unfit.

She once said, “Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire.”

The Failure that Birthed Microsoft

Bill Gates is one of the richest men ever walked this planet. But he started with a business that failed woefully. This business, created with his friend Paul Allen, and called Traf-O-Data, made reports for roadway engineers from raw traffic data.

Learning from their failure with Traf-O-Data, Gates and his friend created Microsoft. This software company is one of the biggest companies in the world today. 

His friend, Paul Allen, had this to say about their failure: “If it hadn’t been for our Traf-O-Data venture, and if it hadn’t been for all that time spent on [University of Washington] computers, you could argue that Microsoft might not have happened. In my experience, each failure contains the seeds of your next success — if you are willing to learn from it. Bill and I had to concede that our future wasn’t in hardware or traffic tapes.”

Vera Wang’s dramatic rise to stardom

Vera Wang

She is the designer behind the iconic wedding gowns you see on celebrities. She started as a figure-skater. She met her first career failure when she failed to qualify as part of the 1986 United States figure-skating team.

Following her love and passion for fashion, Wang moved on and became an editor at fashion-centric Vogue magazine. But, again, failure came knocking on her door as she was brushed off for the position of editor-in-chief at the magazine.

At the age of 40, Wang started designing wedding dresses. Her tenacity has helped her become one of the most sought-after designers in the fashion industry. Her fashion empire is worth more than a billion dollars today. She has even designed dresses for the US figure skating team!

In an interview with The Cut, she said, “No matter how bad things get, no matter how discouraged I feel, no matter how much of a failure I feel like — and that applies to motherhood, friendship, everything — I try to believe there’s a reason, there’s a process, and there’s a learning experience.”

FedEx’s humble beginnings

The idea for the delivery service was conceived as a thesis at Yale University. Fred Smith’s professor was unimpressed and gave him a C.  After a brief stint in the military, Smith returned to the idea and started a company.

By the twenty-sixth month of the company’s start, he had racked up about 26 million dollars in losses. He made an audacious move to play blackjack in Las Vegas and made enough money to help him regain his footing. He raised more capital to put his business back on track.

The company made its first profit three years later. As of December 2020, the company was valued at 2 459 billion dollars. FedEx remains a pacesetter in the world of logistics and delivery services.

How JK Rowling’s Persistence earned her a breakthrough

JK Rowling with a Harry Potter book

She is the author of the widely successful Fantasy Fiction Series Harry Potter. It would interest you to know that twelve different publishing houses rejected the script for Harry Potter and the Philosophical Stone. However, she kept sending the script to other publishers.

A small publisher agreed to publish the book and printed just 1000 copies. Then, in just five months after publication, the book won its first award. Many more came afterward. Today, Harry Potter is a multimillion-dollar franchise with four more books and high-grossing movie adaptations in the collective.

In a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, Rowling talked about her days before her fame and wealth: “I was the biggest failure I knew and as poor as one can be in England without having to be homeless.” Rowling was named by Forbes, in 2004, as the first self-made billionaire author in the world.

The Relentless Pursuit of Michael Jordan

Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players in the history big the game. However, he almost never became the legend that he is. He dropped out from his high school senior basketball team. The reasons were that he didn’t have enough talent or any traits of an outstanding player. Instead, he was asked to play for the junior varsity team.

He was relentless. He practiced hard and developed his skills. He used the failure as fuel and redoubled his efforts. He later played on the senior team and went to the University of North Carolina and then the NBA.

His tenacity made him the most decorated player in the history of the NBA. His basketball fame extends beyond the United States. He is credited with increasing the sport’s popularity in the US and international scenes.

Asides from the famous quote at the beginning of the article, he is also credited with these equally powerful words: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

Michael Jordan

Please note that these examples demonstrate that you can make the most of your failures. They are not meant to be exact blueprints for how you should make the most of your career failures.

Your environment, background, and capabilities are different from these people. However, you should be inspired by their success stories and work on bringing your own to reality.

In conclusion

You are probably reading this because you needed to. However hard that failure might have been, you can still bounce back. You failed do not mean you’re a failure. Don’t give up on trying to do your best work. You can be sure you will be successful if you don’t stop.

I want to look back on my career and be proud of the work, and be proud that I tried everything.

Jon Stewart

Failures are either obstacles or opportunities. So what you see is quite important. In this article, we have learned that how we see and respond to career failures is crucial to making the most of them.

As emphasized, a great perspective of failure should equate to corresponding actions that set one up for success. Successful men could translate their failures to success stories because they acted decisively.

Career failures are obstacles on our career paths that tell us to either change course or walk well (pun intended). Don’t be afraid of failure. See as part of the learning process. When you’re faced with a career failure, see it as an opportunity to become a better person. Embrace it happily, evaluate and act decisively.