Failure: When to Move on and When to Try Again

One evening not long ago I was out driving on the highway during a rainstorm. I signaled right and started to switch lanes, but due to low visibility, I failed to see a van that was moving into the same space. Its bumper swiped the front side of my car.

For the next few days, I drove around with increased hesitation. Before turning, I would double and triple check. My driving speeds were down a few miles per hour. In general, I was more cautious. After a while, however, I was back to being the New Jersey driver I am, navigating the streets with semi-reckless abandon.

It’s common for people who experience a setback to be more cautious the next time. The problem is, many folks will often view a single failure as an indictment on past efforts and not try again. For example, they make many sales calls that don’t convert. Or they produce a product, service or program they believe will sell and get almost no response, causing them to give up.

While there is merit to failing fast, which encourages us to quickly identify when an approach won’t work and move on before investing large quantities of time, capital and other resources, we also need to be able to persevere in the face of adversity and try again when the situation calls for it.

In Think and Grow Rich, author Napoleon Hill tells the story of a man who traveled from his home in Maryland to Colorado in pursuit of gold. After weeks of labor, he was rewarded by the discovery of the shining ore, but he needed machinery to bring the it to the surface. Quietly, he covered up the mine, retraced his footsteps to his home, and told his relatives and a few neighbors of the strike. They got together money for the needed machinery, had it shipped, and he and his nephew went back to work the mine.

The first car of ore was mined and shipped to a smelter. The returns proved they had one of the richest mines in Colorado. A few more cars of that ore would clear their debts. Then would come the big profits.

Down went the drills; up went the miners’ hopes. Suddenly, the vein of gold ore disappeared. They drilled on, desperately trying to pick up the vein again, all to no avail. Finally, they decided to quit.

They sold the machinery to a junk man for a few hundred dollars and took the train back home. The junk man called in a mining engineer to look at the mine and do a little calculating. The engineer advised that the project had failed because the miners were not familiar with fault lines. His calculations showed that the vein would be found just three feet from where the others had stopped drilling, and that is exactly where it was found.

The junk man took millions of dollars in ore from the mine because he knew enough to seek expert counsel before giving up. 

The question is: How do we know when we need to buckle down and give it another go or when it’s time to cut our losses and move on? Here are some questions you can ask yourself that can help add clarity between moving on and pressing on:

1. Do I offer a product people are willing to pay for? If you’ve done your research and people say they would pay for what you’re making/selling, then you may be closer to succeeding than your initial sales indicate. Try to determine what prevented customers from stepping forward the first time and adjust your approach accordingly.

2. Am I making progress? Set business goals and measure your progress. The benchmarks you set for your venture should give you an idea of your progress.

3. Am I or can I be better than the competition? You don’t have to be much better. Just 1-2% will suffice. And it can be in your service as much as your product. 

4. Have I cultivated die-hard fans? If you can’t get a small group of people to love your product, there is almost no chance your business will succeed.

5. How passionate am I about my business? Without passion, you will most likely fail. If you are not getting pleasure out of your business, it may be time to try something else. No matter how much you love your business, there will be ups and downs; passion helps you get over the many road bumps you will encounter. 

6. Is my business relationship-based? The more your product or service relies on how much trust people need to have in what you’re offering, the longer it will typically take for you to gain traction. 

7. How would I advise someone else? It’s often much easier to look at your situation objectively when you take a step back and remove the emotional triggers, such as how much time, effort and emotion you’ve already invested.

8. Is it in me? Much of success is based on your capacity to push ahead. If you don’t have the skills required, can you build a team that does? If you don’t have the right connections, can you hustle to open the right doors?

The next time you fail, don’t be quick to throw in the towel. Reflect on what you learned through your failure, take time to ask yourself these questions and consider new approaches that could result in success.

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Naphtali Hoff, Psy.D., is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, Becoming the New Boss. Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.

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