How Failure Can Lead To A Career Breakthrough

photo via  Elements of Style

When I started my new job last year, I was excited. I knew it would be a challenge, but I convinced myself I was ready for it. Within a few days of starting, there were some transitions in the organization and I was assigned a few more responsibilities that I thought would be temporary until someone was hired. A few months passed, and it seemed that I’d be taking on a different role than I expected.

Slowly, those tasks started to overwhelm me. I was juggling more tasks than I knew how to manage. I realized that if I didn’t hand off at least one task, several would come crashing down, shattering like glass around me. That scared me.

Week passed. Even when it hit me that I was overwhelmed and unhappy, I ignored it. I told myself this phase was just part of the transition into a new role that I was still learning. But I continued to struggle to wake up in the morning; I’d lost my motivation. Because of it, I made at least one mistake everyday. I would berate myself for missing a detail. As the weeks went by, one small detail turned into many details. Not only was I waking up dreading work, my anxiety was at an all-time high. I abhorred opening my email to see what new task I’d failed to accomplish. At the same time, I didn’t want to miss anything, so I opened it at all hours of the day and night.

Finally, a number of months later, the moment I feared presented itself. My boss asked me to meet with her, and she voiced the concerns I had been feeling. She mentioned my lack of attention to detail and ability to set priorities. She asked what was going on and how she could help me get back on track. She told me to think about whether the position was the right fit for me. I admitted to her that I had thought about it but I wanted to prove I could do the job.

For the next two weeks, I hit the lowest point I had ever experienced. I spent so much time worrying about my mistakes that I made them over and over again. I couldn’t get myself back on track. I cried nightly wondering how I could have let this happen. I reimagined scenarios and how I could have fixed them. 

It was in those lows, though, that I sought support from all different angles. I asked them about their opinions of me and my work habits. These conversations–including with my boss–made me think about several things we should all consider when shaping our careers.

What do you want in a job and work environment?

The job I had required me to do and be everything. That works for some people, but I realized I needed a position that focused on one or two main tasks in a collaborative environment. Everyone thrives in different cultures, so determine exactly what kind of role works best for you. That’s where you’ll do your best work.

What tasks do you enjoy the most and are best at?

I took the time to really reflect on what pieces of my job I loved, liked, and could do without. I wanted a job that allowed me to combine all of those pieces, or eventually grow into all of them. Really pay attention to the different responsibilities you have and identify what you like in each. If you could combine those pieces together, what would that ultimate job look like for you?

How can you reach out and build your network?

During my workplace struggles, I reached out to people I had worked with or met in the last year, and they responded with such warmth and genuineness. Lesson here? Don’t be afraid to make contact! Let friends, colleagues, and even professors know that you’re actively looking for new opportunities. Let them know what kind of position you’re looking for based on those skills and tasks you know you enjoy more than others.

How should I approach the first few months of a job?

As I mulled the challenges of my role, I thought about how I could have affected the outcome. These reflections weren’t self-defeating; rather, they were self-constructing. This tough analysis can help you find your own opportunities for growth and understand that no matter how qualified you may be for a position, you need to be willing to put in the time, effort, and energy to get yourself off to a good start.

How can I better care for myself moving forward?

My relationships all took a back seat to my job as I focused intensely on it, while also going through other life transitions. I needed them but pushed them away at the same time. Failing taught me that while work is important, it shouldn’t be all you have. Work-life balance is a real dynamic that you cannot ignore, no matter how many hours your job requires. Self-care takes work. The job you have shouldn’t consume you, but rather support you and the goals you have for yourself–personally and professionally.

Thinking about all of these things led to the job offer that I accepted as part of a four-person team at a local organization, finally on my dream career path of having an international career managing programs and developing policy positions for the wellbeing of our nation and world.

Failure for me was a painful experience. But without it, we cannot grow. We cannot build our careers or discover what we truly want to do unless we fail at something else.

What advice do you have for getting through tough transitions at work or in life?


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