Learning from career failures

Note: This piece was originally published Sept. 17, 2016, on LinkedIn

“Failure is always an option.”

This quote, popularized by Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage, is the reason I love this TV series. (Well, that, and the hosts’ unconcealed joy at blowing things up.)

“Failure is always an option.” It sounds glum, almost fatalistic. But, when spoken in the context of Mythbusters’ commitment to the scientific method, it’s actually anything but gloomy. It’s a statement of perpetual optimism and resilience. Failure is a result, after all, and all results yield data. Even the worst smash-up offers valuable insights if you’re willing to sift through the rubble to find them.

That’s the process I’ve been walking myself through these past few months. In my last career, failure was not only an option; it was a reality for which I was poorly prepared.

In my previous life, I was a children’s librarian for a rural Wyoming library system. I loved my job a lot — so much so that when it became clear that deep budget cuts were headed our way, I stubbornly believed that my job would remain intact, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Instead of making a Plan B, I dug in my heels. The very notion of a Plan B implied that failure was possible, and failure — in this case, the possibility that my position could be downsized or eliminated — just wasn’t an option for me. At least, that’s what I believed at the time.

When the system’s draft budget was presented to the staff, it was clear that the only way to make the deep cuts required was to cut into the personnel line. I turned in my resignation that day and began looking for jobs.

Even the worst smash-up offers valuable insights if you’re willing to sift through the rubble to find them.

Plagued both by internal strife and external budgetary pressures, the organization began to unravel shortly after I left. I realized I’d left at the right time, but it was small consolation. I felt adrift, lost, a ghost in my own life.

In hindsight, I realize how clearly I’d seen the writing on the wall months before I made the decision to leave. I had worked at another faltering organization before, and I knew the signs. Instead of acting on that knowledge, though, I stalled. I let paranoia and anxiety rob me of my best resources and energies.

Failure is always an option.

But, in most cases, failure is also something you can survive. You emerge from it leaner, stronger, and wiser than before.

Failure shakes you loose and makes you nimble.

As a result of the shakeup, I’ve learned to build the potential for failure into all my career plans. I’ve learned to maintain a healthy distance between myself and my work so my career choices are rational decisions, not emotional ones. And, I’ve learned that life is a lot more fun when you stop trying to make it conform to a tidy, uncomplicated narrative.

That’s the other thing about failure. It shakes you loose and makes you nimble. My life isn’t anything like I envisioned it six months ago, but it’s certainly a lot more fun.

Failure is always an option. Be prepared, stay curious, and enjoy the ride.

 Photo credit: Pixabay

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