We have probably all been advised to learn from our mistakes. As Dr. Justin Marquis pointed out, educators should encourage “Learning to Learn from Failure” (11 October, 2012) in their classrooms as much as possible.
However, the message remains good advice for us all as we pursue our careers. In fact, failure is a sure path to career success.
As we enter the work world, many of us do not follow a linear path to the ultimate career and stay there for a few decades. There are fluctuations and changes along the way. For instance, as an educator, I worked a variety of full-time positions in the hospitality and publishing industries while I worked as an adjunct instructor to gain experience. As time went on, I had the chance to try teaching at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, at a small rural high school and one located within a large city, as well as at several community colleges and universities. All of this occurred as I found my way to my real passion: a career in online education.
Certainly those in other professions follow similar disjointed paths to find their niche. I know a nurse, for example, who tried working in an area school and doctor’s office before finding her place as a trauma nurse with a hospital’s helicopter team. She felt like she failed in the first two positions, but in reality, she did not.
As we move through these incarnations of our careers, it’s important to understand that these “failures” are merely steps along our career trajectory. Neither my friend nor I failed at some of our early jobs. They simply were landmarks on the way to our ultimate careers.
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that we accumulate knowledge, experience, and skills with each step on our career path, even those that at first seem to be failures. Often this accumulation can be applied to make us better at our authentic career.
Although I didn’t make it in the hospitality industry, for instance, I learned a lot about people with diverse backgrounds. I learned how to make others feel welcome and comfortable around me and in a public venue. I became good at handling high pressure situations and lightning quick decision-making. All of this has been valuable for my career in education because I have been able to transfer this experience to make students feel welcome and comfortable in my classroom and to keep a rational focus so good decisions can be quickly made even in difficult circumstances as an administrator.
The accumulation of skills even when a part of our career path dead-ends makes this a sure way to career success.
Another reason that failure helps us succeed in our careers is that it forces self-reflection. As career coach Tammy Hoffman states in this video, we change over time; therefore, frequent self-reflection is needed to help us stay focused on what makes us happy.
Failure in a job may be an indication that a career is not right for us. It may be an indication that it’s time to move on even if we’ve been happy in a position for some time. As L.M. Roberts et al. explain in “Composing the Reflected Best-Self Portrait: Pathways for Becoming Extraordinary in Work Organizations,” (March 2004), it is up to the individual to construct their own best self-portrait to lead themselves to career success.
Although we may be rationally aware of the benefits of self-reflection, few things force us to follow through like a career failure. As an educator, I have met adults who had held positions in a company for decades, only to find themselves suddenly downsized. Now unemployed, they arrive at college trying to figure out what to do next. Typically, they express the same sort of sentiment: “I was never really happy in that job, but it paid the bills.” They continue on with a description of the career they would have liked to have had. Obviously, they were capable of clear self-reflection and awareness. What was missing for all of those years was motivation.
Fortunately, for most of these individuals, the feeling of failure when they lose a job forces them out of their rut. They quickly realize that what felt like a door closing is actually a door opening. Now they can at last realize their full potential and pursue authentic career success.
A final consideration of the idea of failure actually leading us to career success is the realization that maybe a current employer is holding you back from achieving your true potential. I’ve naturally been driven, appreciative of the knowledge my varied work experiences have provided, and intensely self-aware. Overall, I tend to be very motivated. However, one of the most powerful lessons I had to learn came from an employer that did not share my desire for career and personal growth.
During my first few years with this college, I received rapid promotions along with the excellent performance evaluations that supported them. Suddenly, however, the forward motion stopped. For a time, I did try to create my own opportunities internally and externally; however, increasingly it became obvious that I was being held back. For instance, although the “publish or perish” mentality is strong in academia, I was told that my writing, publishing, and presenting at conferences were irrelevant to my position as an associate professor and department chair.
Although I probably could have remained pressed against the glass ceiling in the same position at that institution, counting the minutes until retirement, moving on was the best career decision I have ever made. I let go and quickly found other employers and new career opportunities in which my professional and personal growth were both supported and celebrated.
Clearly, it is not failure to move on when an employment context holds you back from career success.
Overall, we label some of these situations as failures when we really should see them as steps along our career trajectory. We should see them for the pruning process they are in helping us find our authentic career. Most of all, because our careers are such a large part of our lives, we should enjoy the journey.
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