Ask Marissa: How Do I Rebuild Confidence After Failure?
I worked really hard on a project and my boss was unhappy with the result. She decided to go with a different direction, which means my team and I have to start over. I feel like I failed and the blow to my ego has been difficult to handle. I don’t like disappointing people. I notice myself feeling less confident as we move forward with this project and even in my daily interactions at work. How do I rebuild my confidence at work and learn to pull away some of those attachments/emotions?
Thanks for writing in and sharing your frustrations. Believe me when I say I’ve been there — you spend time and energy putting together what you believe is great work, but don’t get the satisfaction of seeing it go forward to the next level.
The most important yet undervalued responsibility we all have as high performers is to protect our confidence.
Without confidence, it’s so much harder to drum up the courage to strive on a new project — it can feel far easier to just sit back and wait for someone to give you a new opportunity rather than creating one yourself. And when you’re operating from a reactive place rather than a proactive one, it’s nearly impossible to do the kind of strategic planning needed to execute at a high level.
You’ve got an important objective ahead of you: learn and grow from this experience, and emerge better and stronger because of it.
Here’s how I do this.
1. First, I separate my self-worth from my high work standards. This foundational step is highly nuanced, so I’ll share how this plays out in my own brain with the hopes that you can find your flavor of this idea.
I produce exceptional, high-quality work because that’s my standard operating procedure for myself. When I work, it’s going to be at my best, fullest capabilities.
But my work is not who I am as a human. I will continue to be ambitious and seek growth no matter what I do to earn a living, and no matter who I work with or where.
If you can think of great skills and attributes that are always true about you, inside and outside of work, then you always have a foundation of self-respect and an understanding of the value you bring to the world simply by being alive.
One small thing I sometimes do is make lists of all the achievements I’m proud of in recent memory, personally or professionally. If I can find reasons to be grateful, even when I’m feeling low, I know I can rebound better and stronger than ever.
2. Next, I separate the emotion from the feedback I received. A big mistake people make when receiving harsh criticism at work is internalizing the criticism rather than the lesson.
Some people like to remember negative interactions and use them as motivational weapons. If that style works for you, go for it -- for me, this expends too much emotional energy to be personally useful.
Instead, I strip the emotion and tonality from the criticism -- its only value is to help me weigh and prioritize specific points of feedback. For example, if a boss were to point out every formatting inconsistency in a proposal, I wouldn’t read that as criticism of my eye for detail. To me, this is a signal that formatting is very important to my boss, and that future work I do must reflect an impeccable eye for formatting.
Every piece of criticism you get is a valuable piece of intelligence into how you can overdeliver in the future for that person, or in that exact scenario.
Some of my greatest skills today have been honed with harsh feedback -- and it’s because I was able to filter emotion out of feedback and distill the insights that remain into wisdom.
3. Finally, reframe the time wasted as R&D. The final emotional blow, especially to high performers, is investing time and effort into a project and not seeing it through to the finish. Here, I argue that nothing is wasted so long as you’ve learned something.
What did you learn from this experience?
When I think back on my biggest failures, they’ve often given me my best breakthroughs.
I learned critical lessons on how to communicate deadlines with high-profile people. When to trust my gut and intuition, rather than listen to others’ opinions. When (and how early) to ask for help. When I should and shouldn’t be doing a particular task.
And when I encounter these situations again in the future, I have a truly informed perspective on how to execute better, faster, cheaper and easier than last time.
That’s my go-to process. From there, look for little ways to rebuild your confidence at work. Re-read old emails where someone you respect complimented your work. Look for and celebrate easy wins -- make a game of it.
Above all, remember that you are so much more than what you do at work… and that your next best project is just around the corner.
Ask Marissa is an ongoing blog series where we answer all your questions about optimizing your life. If you have a question for Marissa, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.