This is the last of four articles in the Failure Recovery series on Start to Finish. My own recent failure to launch a board game in 2018, Highways & Byways, is what inspired this detour from the originally planned articles. I think that a frank discussion of failure – what it looks like, the consequences, and moving forward – is really important for new creators to learn.
Failure is brutal. Nobody wants to fail. Nobody sets out to fail. Yet when we take on projects that are bigger than we are able to complete with our skillsets and resources, failure becomes part of life. Success often comes from what you learn from a string of failures. That’s why today, I’m going to talk about nine ways you can avoid despair and move forward after failure.
Step 1: Focus on diagnosing the failure.
I talk about this in more detail in How to Diagnose Failure & Move Forward as a Board Game Developer. Long story short: map out your process, work backward, and see where it broke down. This is good for your rational business interests, but I think it’s also good for coping, too. For me, I found it much easier to analyze business problems than to handle the raw emotion of Kickstarter failure in the week or two immediately following the cancellation.
Step 2: Make a plan to fix the failure.
This is also covered in the previously linked article in Step 1, but it bears repeating. Having an action plan based on careful analysis of what went wrong can make you feel like your failure is useful. I believe that failure is most painful when it is not given meaning. When given meaning, failure becomes bearable. Once it’s bearable, it can be useful and perhaps even motivating.
Step 3: Let it hurt.
Failure hurts. It really, really does. That’s okay. Disappointment, pain, and frustration are part of the human experience. It is unavoidable and you can ask Buddha if you don’t believe me.
It’s okay to let it upset you, take it personally, and be frustrated. If you need to take a day off, do it. If you need to take a week off, do it. If you need to sulk, sulk. You obviously don’t want to succumb to the siren song of self-pity for too long, but you need to release your emotions so that you can move forward. Bottled emotions are painful at best and dangerous at worst.
For me, the raw emotional upset of the Highways & Byways campaign didn’t hit me until the middle of April. This was after I had cancelled the campaign, made a Plan B, and started executing a pivot. For some reason, it was after doing all these things that I was most comfortable processing the pain.
Perhaps for you, feeling the pain will come before you can take action. Perhaps it can come many months later. No matter what: don’t feel bad about feeling bad.
Step 4: Look for the silver lining.
Should you find yourself succumbing to the siren song of self-pity for so long that you risk being dashed upon the rocks, it’s time to take a step back. Positive things come out of failure, even though failure seems devastating. It’s like a forest fire in the sense that it destroys a lot of trees, but creates fertile soil from which stronger, better trees can grow.
For example, when Highways & Byways failed, I had a better understanding of the need to do market research. That’s a clear takeaway, but what most people don’t see is that it cleared up my calendar since I wasn’t busy running a campaign anymore. I was able to focus on doing more things I enjoyed in game development. Furthermore, it instantly broke me of my bad habit of working alone – one of the most dangerous things you can do in business.
Even if you fail fantastically in a public place, it’s probably not a complete wash. You’re probably walking away with more knowledge, more experience, and perhaps even more resources. Even when you feel bad, there is probably something that can make you feel better.
Step 5: Keep some perspective.
Just about everybody who is successful has experienced setbacks. I could list examples of CEOs and athletes, but it’s cliche and you’ve heard it. That’s because it’s true and you’re no exception.
Think about the difficulties your heroes must have faced to get where they are. The path to success is not an easy one. It’s special because it’s uncommon and hard to reach. The scarcity of success is what makes it sweet, so acknowledge the scarcity.
Step 6: Start something new.
Nothing cures the sting of failure like starting something new. In fact, this is what Hayao Miyazaki – creator of the movie Spirited Away – suggests for escaping disappointment with past projects. I find it personally to be true as well. Nothing cures your frustration and desire for self-pity quite like hard work. You still need to carefully balance your workload so you can stay healthy for the long road ahead, but excessive downtime after disappointment is a recipe for disaster.
Open up your heart to pursuing passion again. Try something new. Work hard to make something beautiful. Just be smarter about it next time, like I know you will.
Step 7: Build a dream team.
It’s dangerous to go alone. When you work alone, it’s really hard to recover from a failure. If a team of five launches an unpopular product, that’s okay, because they can likely create something new within a short period of time. Someone working alone may take a year or longer to recover.
For that reason, the period of time that passes right after a failure is the perfect time to build a network and find teammates. Together, you all become stronger and you can make better games as a result!
Step 8: If you’re still stuck, take a break.
If you’ve been grinding away for months or years on end, it’s easy to get stuck in the same ruminative thought patterns. Even the sting of failure is not enough to break repetitive thought patterns sometimes. Only time and distance can do that.
If you’re able to and it’s appropriate, take a short break after a high-profile failure. Do the immediate damage control and take a few weeks to sort out urgent crises. Then go to Hawaii. Or at least reconnect with some friends or family.
Step 9: If you’re still stuck after a break, seek professional advice.
If you’ve recently suffered a setback and the steps above haven’t helped, then it’s time to call in the calvary. By that, I mean any qualified professional who can help you see a way forward. That might mean a career counselor, a therapist, or maybe even a life coach.
The point I’m making here is that if you are frustrated, disappointed, or anxious and you feel deeply in a rut, it’s okay to reach out for professional advice. In fact, it’s more than simply okay – it’s smart!
This is the end of the Failure Recovery series. We’ve covered how to diagnose failure, move forward, recognize common pitfalls, save your reputation, and resist despair. I hope these articles have helped you recover from a recent failure, prevent failure, or lose your fear of failure.
Do you have a good way of coping with failure? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear it 🙂