‘Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement’ – C.S. Lewis.
‘Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour’  – Truman Capote.
‘If you’re not failing, you’re not growing’ – H. Stanley Judd.


These are undoubtedly wise and true statements, but for ‘millennials’ – or ‘Generation Y’ – it’s one thing advocating a philosophical approach to professional failure and another thing entirely to practice what we preach.

In a working world where the odds are already stacked against young people, it feels like madness to do or choose anything that might increase the chance of failing. In their near-universal state of panic (so well expressed by Abigail Radnor in yesterday’s Times2), many twenty-somethings abandon hope of finding exciting, fulfilling work and make career decisions based solely on stability, salary, and the number of opportunities for upwards progression. There are debts and rents to be paid, ladders to be climbed, and hundreds of other bright, well-qualified jobseekers to be outshone. No time for failing.

But when we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our (very natural) fear of failure, we’re not just missing out on opportunities to learn and grow as people; we’re also wasting who we are by failing to fulfil our potential. Rather than risk bombing out whilst seeking the life and work we truly desire, we settle for underemployment in dull jobs that pay the bills but leave our natural talents neglected and redundant, and us uninspired.

If you have a good understanding of yourself and what you have to offer the working world but lack a clear, burning vision of exactly the sphere and/or position you want to be in, there’s nothing for it but to bite the bullet and wander (or stride purposefully if you can) down paths that may well turn out to be dead ends. If the path, project or idea turns out not to suit you after all and it feels like you’re back to square one, try to be as positive and supportive to yourself as you would be to a friend suffering a setback. Here are a few of the many reasons you should be toasting your every ‘failure’ and u-turn:

  1. ‘Portfolio’ careers (full post on this topic coming soon) are on the rise. Unlike a few decades ago, a career with no single trajectory but a range of apparently random jobs and projects does not necessarily mean a scatty mind. To most employers it suggests independence, open-mindedness, a broad range of experience and a variety of skills/talents. Almost all our coaches have an eclectic range of past jobs, particularly Julie – see what she has to say about her somewhat zigzaggy career here.
  2. You’ve got a great ‘behavioural interview’ story in the bank. Interviewers nowadays love candid stories of personal development that show a candidate’s humility and willingness to learn. So when they ask you to recall a time when an experience caused you to change your behaviour, tactics or direction, whip out this exemplary situation and prepare to wow.
  3. Your ‘fail’ was not a setback but a ‘F.A.I.L’:  a ‘First Attempt In Learning’. Rejoice, for you’ve now acquired a tonne of information that will enable you to narrow down your search dramatically. Indulge in negativity for a minute and make a list of everything that made the failed role/project so unsuited to you – everything you disliked about the tasks, the team, the environment and the company culture. What do these things suggest about the conditions, responsibilities, company etc. that would have you so fizzed up you’d be putting off your lunch break? Also examine why you took the job in the first place: was it because of a high salary? If so, does this mean that being a high-earner isn’t as important to you as you’d thought?

Of course, there’s no guarantee that your next steps will lead you to the ‘perfect’ role either, but now that you have a better idea of what gets you engaged and enthusiastic, there’s more chance of you making better choices. Even if you go through a string of jobs you’re not keen on, don’t let fear of failure stop you searching for what makes you tick. The process of elimination, though sometimes painstaking, will be hugely helpful in the long-term, helping you understand and become more honest with yourself.

Dead end

Like the cut of our jib and fancy some face-to-face career-clarifying help from Eyes Wide Opened? Register for one of our upcoming public courses.

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