08.06.12 Career & Finances

The Lesson of Failure

The Lesson of Failure

BY Emily Bennington

One of the reasons I love writing is that it gives me an opportunity to help people navigate the world of work. That said, I can’t help unless I’m completely honest so I’m going to get raw here. (I mean really raw.) Yesterday morning I delivered what I consider to be one of the top three worst presentations of my career. Note I didn’t say in the last year – I said of my career (with a “C”). As if that weren’t bad enough, it just happened to be for my largest client.


To give you some context, I want you to think about your dream gig. You know, the one you’ve been preparing for all your life. The one on your vision board. The one that – three years ago – if someone would have asked, “Who would you love to work for?” you would have named THIS client.

Now – imagine you have that shot and you completely blow it. I’m talking total. gutter. ball. You’d probably feel like you got a swift kick in the stomach with a steel boot, right? Okay, good. Because now you know how I feel.

Totally humiliated, disappointed, angry, sad, confused, second-guessing everything and frankly, a little shocked. I mean, I’ve presented to hundreds of audiences and knowing the importance of this one, I was hyper-prepared. How could it have gone so completely off-key?!?

At the end of the presentation, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. All I could think about was putting on a brave face just long enough to get back to my room and have a good cry. So… that’s what I did. (Brutal honesty, remember? You were warned.)

Of course, our inner critic l-o-v-e-s this stuff, right? It comes swooping in during these moments with a barrage of questions like, “What the hell happened?” “How could you do that?” and the death blow: “Guess you’re not that talented after all, huh?” Believe me, I had the same head traffic but, thankfully, there was another question that popped up louder than the others: “What can you learn from this?”

Ironically, I coach people through disappointment all the time. Just the other day when a mentee of mine who wants to be an artist didn’t get his work accepted in a big show, I was rattling off all sorts of stats about failure. “Don’t worry! Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team. Some idiot turned down the Beatles. People said Oprah was too fat for TV. You’ll show ‘em.”

Easy for me to say.

When the failure is yours, it huuuuurts. Deep. Bad. Still, I have to take my own advice here and recognize that failure isn’t final. It’s a test – and the difference between those who pass and those who don’t is who gets up and who doesn’t. So while every cell in my body wishes things would have gone differently, this is the part where I have to recognize that I can’t change what happened. I can only learn from it and do better next time.

Yes, I’m devastated. (Believe me, this will take a while to get over.) But I’m not going to use a moment of failure as an excuse to play safe or small from now on. Instead, I’m replacing those self-defeating questions with a simple statement: “Thank you for this lesson.” At the very least, the next time someone comes to me because they’ve been humbled, I won’t be talking to them about Oprah or Michael Jordan. I’ll tell them about yesterday – and the moment my professional worst-case scenario came true. I’ll tell them that I survived…and they will too.

Emily Bennington is coauthor of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out and Move Up at Your First Real Job. She is a frequent speaker on the topic of career success and has been featured on Fox Business, CNN and ABC, as well as quoted in publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and Washington Post Express. Emily is a contributing writer for Monster.com and a featured blogger for The Huffington Post, Forbes Woman and US News and World Report. Her second book, Who Says It’s a Man’s World: A Girls’ Guide to Corporate Domination, will be published in January 2013 by AMACOM. Emily can be reached online at emilybennington.com, on Facebook or on Twitter @EmilyBennington.


  • Stephanie Rupertus

    Needed to hear this today, thank you.

  • Love this! Thanks for sharing. I love brutal honestly…what’s the point in sharing anything if it’s not our truth? Great post and yes, when something goes so differently than what we expect, there’s a REASON for it and something to learn out of it, even when it doesn’t make sense. But in this case, it sort of makes sense to me. It reminds me of athletes who work THEIR WHOLE LIFE to get to the Olympics…and they want that gold medal, and then they end up making a mistake that they NEVER ever make.. like falling or stepping out of bounds on a routine gymnastics exercise (sorry, been caught up in old tapes of the US Magnificent Seven of 1996), and losing major points. It’s like “what just happened?!” Our minds are VERY powerful. If we even slightly think “OMG, I can’t believe this, I hope I don’t mess up” chances are, we’ll mess up. Not that you thought that necessarily, but just in general, when there is something BIG at stake, the pressure is on, and it can mess with us. The fact you could even get in front of your client…and that you made it that far was already not a failure, but an awesome life experience. 🙂 Don’t beat yourself up too much, but I know how that goes all too well.

    • Emily Bennington

      Dana – I totally agree and I’ve had the exact same thoughts watching the Olympics. I watched one guy who trained for four years step slightly out of bounds and get DQ’d. How could you not replay that in your mind to infinity? But, yes, there is a lesson in all failure…most notably… get up and move on. 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  • Jessica

    I’m so sorry to hear that happened to you. We’ve all been there! I mean, who hasn’t? But the important message is that you have to pick yourself and try again, even if you look like a raccoon from all that smudged mascara. Bounce back. Just keep bouncing back. Thanks for sharing.

Every week in your inbox!

  • Exclusive notes and videos from Amanda de Cadenet.
  • Early access to our Limited Space Workshops.
  • Amanda’s Favorites and Special Offers shared with you weekly.
  • Exclusive notes and videos from Amanda de Cadenet.
  • Early access to our Limited Space Workshops.
  • Amanda’s Favorites and Special Offers shared with you weekly.
Subscribe Now

to receive our newsletter every Tuesday.

Sign up here for my Weekly Newsletter and Exclusive Updates: