How Can Failure Work for You?

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

How Can Failure Work for You?

By Andrea Novakowski

When I turned 40, I was invited to play on a women’s soccer team. While I’d watched my kids play in over a hundred soccer games and had even coached my daughter’s first team, I’d never actually played the sport myself. Part of me was thrilled by the idea of running around on the field (and getting great exercise). But there was also a ton of “mind trash” going on. Would I be too exhausted to keep up? Would my participation help or hurt the team? I only knew one person there … and so on.

During my first game, I didn’t score any goals. I was caught offside several times. I got knocked down. And yes, I was winded.

It might be tempting to view this experience as a failure. But upon reflection, I realized I’d had a wonderful time. I discovered some strengths and weaknesses: my eye-foot coordination was pretty good, but I needed practice shooting, dribbling, and just running to improve my stamina. I also learned first-hand the standard rule for older athletes: Take two ibuprofen before the game!

Whether you’re starting a company, embarking on a new venture, or launching a new product, it’s important to know that failure will happen. Being aware of this and expecting it will help you keep moving forward.

Playing soccer taught me some important lessons about failure:

  • Don’t trash-talk yourself. Are you painting the whole situation in a negative light? Is it based on fact or fiction? Even if there are aspects of the situation you’re unsure or unhappy about, there may be others where you know you can succeed or set yourself up to succeed.
  • Figure out what you need to know. I learned a lot in my first soccer game, including that there was still plenty I needed to learn. What do you need to learn to keep your business going? How can you obtain this information?
  • Be inspired by failure. Instead of getting discouraged by the things you don’t do well, let them spur you on. All those goals I didn’t score made me want to do better in the future — and therefore work on my shooting.
  • Don’t quit. It’s as simple as that. Failure is only a dead end if you decide it is. Look at what didn’t work, create a plan to improve the situation, and then start taking action on that plan.

Even the worst and most embarrassing failures usually provide useful information that you can use going forward. Consider your most recent failure and see if you can discern the gifts in it.

Here are three benefits you get from things not working out according to plan:

  1. Revelation. Imagine you suddenly start losing business to a competitor. What lessons can you learn from this? Maybe your product is no longer meeting the needs of your clients. Maybe you need to articulate its value more clearly. Taking time to reflect on what happened can reveal a lot.
  1. Inspiration. When one path is blocked, the next step may suddenly become more apparent. It may not be what you thought it was or what you’d been focusing on. Losing a piece of your business can highlight a range of new options. You could open up a dialogue with your former clients, you could ask them for referrals to new customers who might benefit from your services, you could explore untapped markets.
  1. Confirmation. Just as important, failure can teach us what not to do. What worked in your previous venture? What didn’t work and why? Now that you’re aware of the obstacles that may come up, you can anticipate them and plan how to get around them.

Every so often, we succeed the first time we try something. We roll the ball down the middle of the alley, or the cake comes out perfectly, or the business idea takes off. But much more often, we encounter failure along the way. The typical rhythm looks more like: try, fail, try, fail, try, fail. Until one day it becomes try, succeed.


Do you have a talk to give, a key project to deliver, a new group you want to join? Expect that things will not go smoothly the first time out. Go in with a plan to learn from your mistakes, and to go back and try again.

8 thoughts on “How Can Failure Work for You?”

    1. Julie,
      Thanks for your kind words. Would you agree that failure can lead to possibility?

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I loved your soccer story. And your advice about failure dovetails with a book I just finished reading, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. To paraphrase her, to be an artist and to be good, you first have to be willing to be bad at it. Most creativity dies because initial failures discourage the artist. Creativity needs nurturing. It’s the persistence, the act of continually showing up, that makes one good.

    I’ve found the same applies in business and most life endeavors.

    Here’s to the guts to keep showing up!

  2. Hi Evelyn, thank you for the reminder of The Artist’s Way. I agree 100% that her words about persistence and showing up apply to business and life! It aligns with Angela Duckworth’s sentiments in Grit, too.


  3. What a great article! And the perfect quote by Edison. I heartily agree… in order to succeed, we need first to learn from all of the things we did that were not successful. Plus – if everything were easy from the get-go, how boring would that be?!

    1. Hi Suzan, ah you have a sense of adventure, finding the fun in learning from our mistakes. Love your outlook!

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