Bill Gates. George Lucas. Oprah Winfrey. Jack Ma. These are some of the most successful names in their fields, but have you also heard about their early career failures? 

Bill Gates’ first business folded. The first commercial film by George Lucas was a flop. Oprah Winfrey was dropped from her first stint as an anchorwoman after only a few episodes. Jack Ma was rejected from 30 jobs, but later co-founded Alibaba Group – and today he’s worth US$48.7 billion. 

These are not unique stories – all the world’s most successful people have at least one or two epic failures in their past. However, they all found ways to overcome these setbacks and returned stronger and better prepared. 

When faced with failure, it’s important to keep looking forward. Carol Cai, Associate Director, Manufacturing and Engineering at Michael Page China says, “Focus on the learnings instead of the failure. No one can change what has already happened – how you use it for a better future is the key.” 

Keeping that advice in mind – what’s the best way to handle these setbacks? Here are some tips for not only making it through challenging times, but coming out on the other side in a stronger, more knowledgeable place than before. 

1. Don’t let setbacks define you

Especially early on in your career, be sure not to let setback get into your head.  It’s normal to internalise events, convincing yourself that you are could be the problem. However, in many cases there are other contributing factors that have nothing to do with your own efforts or knowledge. 

No one can change what has already happened – how you use it for a better future is the key

Being retrenched or furloughed can feel very personal, but you have the power to turn it around by being open and honest in your job search. Govil Aggarwal, Associate Director, Marketing at Michael Page India advises, “If fired or laid off from a previous role, job seekers should be upfront and honest about what happened. There is no shame in admitting a role was retrenched and some companies actually prefer candidates who are immediately available.”

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Even more, avoid labeling yourself as a failure. In fact, one study conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, found that current failure can actually spark later success. The study analysed data from scientists who had applied for grants early in their careers, and split them into two groups – those who succeeded and those who failed. 

Later, they tracked how many papers those same scientists published over the next decade and found that those in the failure group were 6.1% more likely to publish a high-impact paper than those in the success group. In other words, failure might be a catalyst for working harder to be successful the next time around. 

Bottom line: Don’t let external factors doubt your knowledge and belief in your own capabilities. 

2. Take the lessons, leave the judgement

It sounds like a platitude, but it really is true – there’s more to be learnt from challenging situations than easy ones. With that in mind, focus on what lessons can be learned.

If you’ve been fired or laid off, seek out feedback from someone in the organisation that you trust. From there, see what you can fix for the next time around. It’s not easy to turn a critical eye inwards but doing so will allow you to improve. 

When starting the job search again, it’s important to be honest and open with prospective employers. Emma Parnwell, Associate Director at Michael Page Australia says, “At the interview stage, be honest, but stick to the facts and leave out emotion. Quite often, job seekers fall into the trap of over-justifying and giving too much detail. This can lead to them providing an emotional narrative that will raise more questions.” 

Bottom line: Own the situation, learn what you can from it, but then set your sights on your next opportunity. 

How to handle setbacks and failures

01Use your failure as motivation to work harder at the next opportunity

02At job interviews, own the situation, rather than over-justify

03Take on a growth mindset to enable better learning, adapting and persistence

04Understand that small, steady wins can lead to transformational power

3. Keep trying, as long as necessary

Sometimes, success will only come on the 10th attempt, or with the 15th job application. It does not matter when exactly that success comes, it only matters that you persist.

In this time of lay-offs and hiring freezes due to COVID-19, persistence is even more important, as this situation may continue for some time. While you are waiting, make sure you have everything in place to succeed, then wait until the time is right.  

Bottom line: Let small wins keep you going and keep trying as long as necessary. 

4. Adopt a growth mindset

A growth mindset (versus a fixed one) is the belief that a person can always learn, improve and develop the necessary skills and abilities. A growth mindset is essential in recovering from a career setback, as it allows you to learn, adapt and keep going. 

This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

As Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, outlines in her book, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

In the job search, Aggarwal echoes this call to be flexible, “Be open minded about new opportunities, as long as your skillset is put to good use. This is a time to be flexible on titles and team structure, as long as the company is ready to invest in your future growth.”

Bottom line: A growth mindset also allows you to reframe your loss as an opportunity: to learn, to grow and to do things better the next time around. 

5. Take Action

After a setback, it can be hard to find motivation to get going again. This is where it’s important to take the situation into your own hands, find out what you can control and take action steps to get back up on top. 

Even if you were retrenched, be picky and do not apply to all the jobs that you see, but instead focus on those that are the best fit.

In the case of losing a job, those action steps include getting back into the job search. Imeiniar Chandra, Director at Michael Page Indonesia advises, “Build you own personal brand, get in touch with a recruitment agency to assist you in a job search or reach out directly to companies you want to work for. Even if you were retrenched, be picky and do not apply to all the jobs that you see, but instead focus on those that are the best fit.” 

Parnwell also advises to take stock of what your strengths are, and find ways to highlight them as you move forward. “Remember, you are not alone, it’s a competitive market and this means that companies can be selective about what they are looking for. What are your tangible and transferable achievements and skills? Focus on the positives of your skillset. Not every role will be right for you, so instead of emotionally investing into a position that is a 60% fit, focus on the positions that are the right fit and spend time tailoring your application to the position deliverables.”

Bottom line: If you take the chance to learn, finding a job is still possible. It may not look like it at first. 

Growth from failure 

Experiencing a setback early in your career is hard and discouraging in the short term. But for the long term, it can turn out to be a great opportunity to learn more about yourself as a professional, find new sources of motivation and acquire additional knowledge for the future. 

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