Photo of the author as a teenager

How To Learn From Failure 

Failure isn’t bad. It’s a learning opportunity. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve probably heard that before. But how do you actually learn from failure? Oftentimes, this advice gets over simplified and glossed over…like “just don’t do that again” or “now you know better”. But it’s not that easy. Learning from failure is a process, and a messy one at that! Here’s 5 steps for how to learn from failure, ala Lynn.

Step #1: Get Curious

The first step in learning from failure is to get curious. Ask — how and why did I fail? There can be many reasons for failure. The Harvard Business Review outlines a spectrum of reasons for failure, ranging from straight up deviance (you, or someone on your team did it on purpose!), to lack of ability, poor process, complexity of the task, to exploratory testing – where you are trying something totally new and have no idea what you’re doing! Understanding how and why you failed is the beginning of the learning process.

For instance, I used to play basketball. I was amazing at drawing fouls, but I was terrible at free throws. I missed shots again and again. I wasn’t missing the shots on purpose — I wanted to make them and was giving my all every game. On this scale, my failure stemmed from a lack of ability. I had not developed the skills, nor took the training seriously to execute these.

In business, one major area I see people “fail” is not getting the sale. This is where you can go back to the spectrum and ask yourself — what is the reason I’m failing? Are you distracted, are you not giving 100%? Are you lacking confidence in your sales pitch, do you need more training to be able to have productive sales conversations? Or is it your process? Does your sales process itself need an overhaul? Do you even have a sales process?! Sometimes, it can be an all of the above situation – but don’t get discouraged!

Another cause of failure that the spectrum doesn’t mention is unconscious self-sabotage. This can stem from a fear of success, which I wrote about in a previous post.

Tip: Ask, Ask, Ask

Sometimes, we might not be able to see the full picture of why we are failing ourselves. Ask for an outside view. If you didn’t get the sale — ask your prospect why you didn’t get it. This is the same reason that companies have exit interviews for employees. Why people said “no” to you is valuable information that many people are afraid to ask for. Because…the truth hurts!

You can also ask your coach, your peer, or your strategic partner to help you analyze or provide feedback in a situation where THEY might see the hangup.

Step # 2: Own It

Once you understand how and why you failed, it’s time to own it! Take responsibility for your part. I want to be clear here, taking responsibility is different than blaming and shaming yourself, or others on your team. Blaming and shaming yourself or others can trigger an emotional shut down and throw up a huge roadblock in the learning process, and it is not productive or nice, for real.

When put on ourselves, the blame and shame game tells us that we are bad for failing. That there’s something wrong with us. It doesn’t open up any possibility for change or improvement. When the blame and shame game is shifted onto others, it lets us off the hook and denies us an opportunity for growth.  Learn to own our own shit.

When I kept missing free throw after free throw and costing my team points, it would have been easy for me to go to a place of “you’re a terrible player”,  “you suck at this”,“maybe you should just quit playing basketball.” Or I could blame the ref, the other players, my coach, etc…but none of that would get me anywhere.

Instead, when I decided to own it and take responsibility for why and how I was failing, it became clear that there was something I could do about it. I could take action to improve. It wasn’t me who was bad. It was my lack of training and skills – something that could be changed, if I was willing to put in the effort.

The same goes in business. When you lose a sale, a client, or get a poor review, don’t give up, or write it off. Own your part and then look for what you can do differently.

Let failure motivate and inspire you, not control you!


Step # 3: Experiment

This is the trial and error stage. I think this is probably the most important stage of how to learn from failure, and the stage that trips most people up from progressing further. Why? Because the first solution you come up with might also fail. The second one might too! And you gotta be ready for that. Be open to experiment and try many different approaches that may – or may not work. Give yourself some time.

Nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. – Denzel Washington

Another big key here is ASK FOR HELP! As a business owner, coach, or leader, it can get lonely at the top. This is where mentorship and building your tribe of support people comes in. Look for people that have experience in your field and ask them what worked for them. Ask them how they failed, and how they succeeded!

When I was honing my free throw skills, I tried a lot of different things. I came in early, I stayed later, I watched videos, I watched my teammates who excelled, I broke down the pieces of the body mechanics and applied, applied, applied. I analyzed everything, my body, mind, and the way I held the ball to the time it went swisssshhhhh – what worked, what didn’t. I also spent a lot of time visualizing myself making the shot. Through all of this, I increased my ability and my stats as a player.  Now every time, to this day, I know by the feel of when that ball leaves my hand, if it will go in or not. It was about trial and error, making micro changes, analyzing and then going back in and trying again.


Step # 4: Integrate Change

One you’ve experimented and found a solution that works, use it! Doing something new always feels weird in the beginning. It can be easy to backslide and go back to old patterns and behaviors, even if they were causing you to fail. If you are managing a team, this is a crucial step. They are looking to you to make the process clear and model it for them.

In some cases, you may not find a solution when experimenting. You may keep getting closed doors. It’s important to pay attention to this too. Know when to walk away. You’re not giving up if you’ve sincerely given it a good effort, asked for help, and experimented with different possibilities. Sometimes, something just isn’t meant to be and the universe is pointing you in a totally new direction with repeated failures in one area. This is part of the learning process as well. Sometimes, what you need to learn is: this isn’t my cup of tea!


Step # 5: Share

I respect successful people who talk about their failures. It’s refreshing! Sharing the challenges you’ve overcome in a real, honest, and authentic way gives others permission to be human. When you have finally come to a solution or an answer, I think sharing your experience and what worked for you (and what didn’t) is an awesome way to give back.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do here!


Are you struggling to learn from failure in your business or life? I’m here to help! Drop me a line and we can chat. 

Scroll to Top