How Should I Handle Failure? (Like a Champ, that’s How)

Failure is such a big, bad, ugly word. No one likes failing, or even admitting to failure. It’s not fun, but failure is absolutely essential to the learning and growing process.

The best way to handle failure is three-fold; accept your role in the failure, execute a root-cause analysis, and learn the lesson from it. Failure is a valuable teaching tool, but drawing the lesson from it can be difficult without the proper process.

Before we talk about the process of learning from failure, it’s important to establish a healthy perspective about failure.

Failure is the Pathway to Greatness

When I became a business owner, one of the first thing I told my staff is “I love mistakes.” The provocative statement was intended to get their attention, but it did carry an important message that I intend to make us an organization which values the lessons that failures bring. Toxic organizations punish mistakes; great organizations cherish them.

Hall of fame baseball player Reggie Jackson has struck out more than any other player in history with 2,597. He also had a career .262 batting average. For you non-baseball folks out there, this means every 10 times Reggie Jackson got up to bat, he failed almost 7.5 times out of 10. And yet, he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. Why? His career spanned more than 20 years with nearly 600 home runs. He won the Major League Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the year once, was the World Series MVP twice and led his teams to 5 World Series championships in 21 seasons.

You know who’s never struck out in a Major League baseball game? Me. Does that make me a better batter than Reggie Jackson? After all, he’s failed 2,597 times more than I have. Clearly not.

At one point in my life, I was in the 85th percentile of all tournament chess players in the world. That means I was better at chess than 85% of everyone in the world who played competitive chess. If I had to guess, I would say I have lost about 6000 games of chess in my life.

Failure. Is. Good. Failure is essential. Failure is your best teacher and the pathway to greatness. But don’t take my word for it. What did NBA legend Michael Jordan have to say on the matter?

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-

Accept Your Role in the Failure

The first step in leveraging failure is to accept your part in the failure. I remember coming home from work one day and my neighbor’s dog, “Brother” was walking in the road, and I nearly did not see him. My son yelled at me, “you almost hit Brother! If you had hit him it would have been your fault!”

I thought that was an interesting statement, but a good insight into how most people view failure. Would it have been my fault? Actually yes. And no. It would have been my neighbor’s fault for him getting out of the fence again. It would have been Brother’s fault for aimlessly wandering around the streets of the neighborhood. And it would have been my fault maybe for driving a bit too fast or not being as vigilant as I could have been. Why do I bring all of this up?

“Don’t fall into the trap of pushing all of the blame on the person who makes the last, in a long series of mistakes.”


Because a very unhealthy way of viewing failure is also the most natural. The person who makes the last mistake almost always gets 100% of the blame for a failure. We see this all the time in sports. The guy who missed the last shot gets blamed for the loss, or goalkeeper who let the ball slip past his hands. What people forget is in any sporting contest hundreds of mistakes led to putting someone in a do-or-die position. It’s easy to blame the guy for missing the last shot, even when your best player got ejected from the game in the first half for running his mouth. Yes, the goalkeeper failed to stop the kick, but the defense broke down prior to that allowing a skilled player to get too close.

If your team fails, you had a part in it. There is something you could have done better. Perhaps a critical teammate got sick and you missed the deadline because of that. Well, you should plan for staff outages. You should succession plan, and cross-train ahead of time. You should put some margin of error in your deadlines just in case of things like this.

Don’t fall into the trap of pushing all of the blame on the person who makes the last, in a long series of mistakes. Also, and this one is tough, you must be committed to accept your role in the failure even if others refuse to. You cannot control other people, but you can control yourself. Even if someone on your team refuses to accept their contribution to the failure, you still will. Being doing so means you will be moving ahead, and they will not.

Execute a Root-Cause Analysis

This is finding not only the root-cause for the failure, but also evaluating everyone’s part in it. Remember, failures offer a golden opportunity to uncover systematic problems and improve your business and yourself.

Once I got an urgent email which simply said, “We have to fire Sally, she cursed out a customer on the phone.” I walked down to my colleague’s office and asked, “hey, what happened?” She pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose and looked firmly at me. “It doesn’t matter what happened. Sally yelled and cursed at a client on the phone. She has to go.” I insisted we get the full story before making any decisions.

Sally indeed owned up to yelling and cursing at the client on the phone. When I asked her why, she said with tear-filled eyes “I get tired of people being angry at me all day, every day on the phone. I finally had enough and snapped, and I’m sorry.” So I followed up with, “what do you mean people are angry at you all the time on the phone?”

Sally explained that people are always angry when they get on the phone with her because they have to wait so long to talk to a customer service representative. Knowing that our average hold time, nationally, was only about 3 minutes I was confused and inquired further. Sally went on to explain sometimes people have to wait 20 or 25 minutes and they’re really upset when she finally answers.

Incredulous that anyone would have to wait 25 minutes, I began looking deeper into the logs. Yes, the average hold time to get a representative was 3 minutes, but people from Nebraska and Kansas had an average hold time of 18 minutes. Guess who was assigned to be the customer representative for Nebraska and Kansas? That’s right, poor Sally. She had endured angry customers fussing at her for months and months and it finally got to her.

By asking a few questions, we were able to uncover a systematic problem with our phone routing system which kept people from those two states waiting until the entire queue was empty. This problem was causing a massive disservice to Sally, all of our clients in Nebraska and Kansas, and kept our business from being rated as well as it could be by customers. And we came very close to dealing with the problem by firing Sally and putting some other poor sucker on the Nebraska/Kansas switch.

Do not accept the cause of failures at the first glance. Dig deep and make sure you truly understand what led to it, and how everyone involved can improve their processes as a result.

Learn the Lesson, and Apply It

Now that you have accepted you had a role in the failure, and performed the root-cause analysis it’s time to learn the lesson and take action. Are there other phone switches having a similar problem? What are we doing to audit these phone systems anyway? Maybe we should craft a survey for employees to see if others are in a similar situation. What other problems exist in the organization that we’re blind to?

Imagine all the opportunities we would have missed to improve if we had simply fired Sally.

Maintain a Healthy Perspective

This is a final, friendly reminder on what you should do when facing failure. Remember, failure is your greatest teacher. Don’t disrespect your teacher! If you spend any time with me at all, you will hear me bring up Marcus Aurelius. Over 2,000 years ago Marcus had a brilliant insight about failure, loss, and hardship. These were the very things, in his estimation, which made us great. We cannot be great without trials, mistakes, and teachable moments. Therefore welcome the hardships, because they are going to form you into a great leader. Instead of cursing the failure, embrace it and learn from it.

Here are his exact words on the matter, “The mind grows, adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our benefit. The impediment to action is what advances action. The obstacle in the way becomes the way.”

And finally, to close I would like to present perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Bible. James chapter 1, versus 2-3.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Because when your faith is tested, it brings strength and perseverance.”

-James 1:2-3-

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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