Pile of lemons

How to find the value in your failures

It was 2004. I put on the nicest clothing I owned and made the hour drive to Dallas. I knocked on the door of my client’s office, 5 minutes early for our scheduled meeting, and proudly showed off her near-finished website. To date it was one of the most sophisticated projects I’d ever delivered and the client gushed over it.

Then, I told her that a lot of what she’d asked for (and I’d already added to the site) was out of scope and the price tag had increased significantly. She refused to pay beyond my initial quote.

I was angry with my client, declared them in the wrong to any freelancing buddies who’d listen, and licked my wounds.

Looking back at this situation, 2015 Carrie realizes something that 2004 Carrie didn’t:

I failed.

I failed to manage the scope of the work. I failed to communicate openly with my client during the process. I failed to set expectations around expenses. And it cost me a lot of money that day.

It wasn’t my client’s fault – the failure was all mine.

What to do when you lose?

I recently finished reading listening to How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. As the title suggests, Adams has experienced dozens of failures in business and entrepreneurship, though in the end, he’s won big with Dilbert, one of the best comic strips of all time.

Adams’ book carries a great deal of helpful wisdom (there’s a few oddball suggestions in there as well), but the message that stood out to me was:

Failure always brings something valuable with it. I don’t let it leave until I extract that value.

Hearing that was like a light-bulb going off in my brain.

I’ve always assigned a vague value to “experience” (good or bad), but I like the idea of wrestling with failure until you squeeze every bit of value from it.

The story I just told would never happen to me now, because I’m better at my job. Intentional or not, I got tremendous value out of my failure that day because I learned what not to do.

What to do when you fail spectacularly?

I wish there were magic pills we could take to automatically avoid failure and its unpleasant consequences, but life doesn’t work that way. Sure, we can learn from the experience of others, but growth happens when we take ownership of our failures and leverage them to do better next time.

Are you climbing up a pile of your failures to reach success or do your failures look like someone else’s fault?

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