“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there." -- Edwin Louis

Here’s a recent conversation I had with a prospect I had been wooing for months: “You know, Liz, we’ve decided not to use your services, after all. Thanks so much for your time.” In one brief moment, a simple phone call ended the months I had devoted to potentially selling some services to this possible client. Or how about the time, at age 15, I delivered a presentation during a high school speech competition? “Horrendous,” wrote one judge, evaluating my performance. “You really, really need to improve,” wrote another. (That was his underline, by the way!)

So yes, I’ve dealt with my fair share of the “F” word. Dealing with failure isn’t always pretty, but we know it’s just part of living. Like you, I’ve heard the “failure is a great learning experience” line about a million times, so there’s going to be none of that here. After all, most reasonable people know that failure and disappointment are just part of life, and in hindsight, we do learn from our blunders, rejections, and other mishaps.

But it’s one thing to intellectually know that failure is OK, and quite another to really feel that it is OK. And for those of us who are entrepreneurs, job-seekers, or otherwise largely on our own for large portions of the day dealing with little rejections on a semi-regular basis, we want a system for handling failure so it really doesn’t get the best of us. The question is, how?

First, don’t turn into a drama queen. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had days with one bad phone call too many. Instead of dealing with the fact that we all have bad days, I occasionally choose to rant and rave, going on about how having my own business is a ridiculous idea, this won’t work and what was I possibly thinking? As Stuart Smalley would say, this kind of attitude is truly “stinking thinking” and gets us nowhere. So while I support the idea of occasional dramatics in the name of therapy, if you find yourself taking those little setbacks too personally too often, it’s time to get some perspective.

Consider a great conversation between the actor Jack Black and a younger girl from his movie, “School of Rock,” where they discuss how the typical actor faces 19 rejections before he lands a role. “Once I realized that you could be rejected 19 times and still be doing fine, I felt great about being an actor,” said Jack. Remember that no one is counting your mishaps except you, and that it only takes one sale, one job offer, or, in his case, one starring movie role to make all the difference. Above all, keep the big picture in mind – look back on your accomplishments and feel good about what you have been able to do.

Listen with only one ear. I know I said I wasn’t going to mention the old “we all learn from our failures” cliché, but bear with me. Sometimes, failing at something is nature’s way of telling us to get a clue about ourselves. We’d be foolish if we didn’t try to understand why we failed at something, or listened to helpful feedback that truly can help us improve. Yes, it was brutal for me to hear that I spoke “horrendously” at age 15, but I got over it, practiced a ton, and tried my best to never speak horrendously again. But some of us have an extremely hard time hearing criticism of any kind, and that really does impede our success. Nicola Thomson, Recruiting Manager of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, noted that this issue is particularly pronounced in the recent graduates she meets throughout the year: “Many of our new hires have never been criticized, and don’t seem to deal with any type of failure well. When we tell them during performance evaluations that they need improvement in a particular area, some of them really can’t handle it and get defensive. That gets in the way of their future promotions and other opportunities at work.”

On the other hand, someone’s “helpful” criticism, advice, or other expertise doesn’t necessarily have to spell failure for us. Consider the stories outlined in Steve Young’s terrific book, Great Failures of the Extremely Successful, where he shares dozens of examples of successful people refusing to let others’ beliefs and attitudes get in their way. For instance, Young shares a story about Elvis Presley, who was fired from the Grand Ole Opry after only one performance and told by the manager, "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. Better get y'all job back drivin' a truck." There are countless examples of people who heard brutal criticism, got fired, lost the deal – and kept going anyway. The moral of the story? We need to half-listen to these messages of criticism or failure, determine they are not signs from God to throw in the towel, and just stick to our plan.

Above all, persist. Sure, it’s tough to keep going when the going gets tough. Ask any marathoner, successful entrepreneur, or anyone else who has opted to stay in the race even though you or I could find plenty of acceptable reasons why they should quit. The truth is that for intelligent risk-takers, the bold road will offer its share of rejections and failures, and there will always be an ‘acceptable’ reason to quit that your friends, family, or acquaintances may offer.
After all, most people aren’t risk-takers, so the fact that you’re willing to ride out the rejections and failures may be tough for people to understand. But as long as you understand why your goal matters to you, persistence will come naturally, at least most of the time.

If it doesn’t, consider the story of one man who decided at a young age he wanted to pursue either business or politics. Unfortunately, he lost his first run for office in the state legislature, and completely failed at starting his own business. Worse, he suffered the death of his childhood sweetheart, and eventually had a nervous breakdown as a result. Despite these major setbacks, he persisted, and continued to dream of a career in politics, running for office (and losing) seven more times. And even though he lost opportunities to serve in the U.S. Senate and later as Vice President, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860. He’s one great example of how you can persist and fight no matter what. Now, it’s up to you to become your own great example of persistence in your own life. Make us proud!

Author's Bio: 

Elizabeth Freedman is an expert in career and workplace issues. She is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. Elizabeth runs a Boston-based career-development and coaching firm; clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Reuters and The Gillette Company. To bring Elizabeth to your next association event or workplace meeting, please visit http://www.elizabethfreedman.com.