Don't Let Past Mistakes Hold You Back From Future Successes

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Whether in athletics, work or life, not everything you do will end in a podium finish. That’s just the reality of living in a complex world. In every situation, there are known components that you can plan for, but there are also factors outside your control.

The result? Failures are inevitable. Even Olympic athletes who train for years for a career-defining race sometimes have a false start and get disqualified. The disappointment in those moments of failure can be crushing, but what matters most is not that they happen, but what you do next.

Do you let your mistakes drag you down, or do you learn from them and grow smarter, more adaptable and more resilient?

The most successful people in the world, from professional athletes to business leaders, use their failures to build momentum, not slow it. They look at their current project with a glass-half-full perspective while at the same time remaining objective. So when a project does fail, they don’t trip — they pivot into the next phase of their plan.

Strategic Planning Takes Everything Into Account

As I said above, you can’t control everything, but you can certainly control some things. To maximize your chances of success, it’s important to leverage this control and use it to your advantage. You can do this by creating a plan that takes everything you can control into account.

To apply this strategy, first define the major milestone or lofty goal of your project. Next, consider everything, large and small, that might be important to achieving your primary goal. You want to look at all your options during this brainstorming phase and put them on the table.

For example, when I’m developing next year’s corporate operational plan for my biotech company, I write down hundreds of ideas over the course of a month. Then, I pare down the list to between 20-30 ideas. I think about what matters most to achieving the company’s objectives, and I finally bring the list down to no more than five key statements. Each statement speaks to a different function of the business — one is a finance-related goal, one is a development-related goal, another is a team-oriented goal, and so on.

I suggest following this exercise and defining the five most important goals for your project. Then, don’t look at the document for some time. Come back to it after a few months and ask yourself: Has anything changed? Would something different help me reach my overarching goal? Answer these questions and adjust your plan accordingly.

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Create a Backup Plan for Your Backup Plan

Once you have a strategic plan based on the highest priority goals of your project, it’s time to answer this question: What happens if Plan A fails?

When people get tripped up by failures and mistakes, it’s usually because they don’t know what to do next. After all, it’s difficult to “fail fast and fail forward” when you have nothing to move forward into. That’s why it’s critical to have backup plans — they answer the question, “What’s next?”

If Plan A fails, you learn from the experience and implement those lessons into Plan B. If Plan B goes wrong, you have a Plan C in place to move into and maintain your momentum. This might sound like a lot of time spent switching between plans, but with each step, you gain resilience. You learn from your mistakes, and, in turn, you rebound faster.

Anyone can bounce back from failures and grow stronger each time — it’s a matter of learning how to manage failure and not letting it derail you. The structure provided by backup plans is key to managing your progress because it lets you easily move from a failure to the next step, instead of becoming caught in a downward spiral. You won’t waste time mid-project asking, “What do I do next?” because you’ve already thought it through, prioritized your objectives and laid out your contingency plans.

Today’s Failure Is the Basis for Your Next Win

Setting yourself up for success with a strategic plan — and several backups — is only half of the equation. The other half requires changing your perspective on failure.

Let me ask you this: What separates winners from losers? It’s not that winners succeed on the first try; the difference is that winners keep trying despite their failures.

Consider people like Steve Jobs after Apple nearly went bankrupt, or swimmer Diana Nyad after she failed to swim from Cuba to Florida. Either of them could have given up after such major setbacks. Instead, Steve Jobs learned from his experience, gained a greater appreciation for consumer preferences and led Apple to a new level of success. Diana Nyad attempted her Cuba-Florida swim several more times before succeeding on her fifth attempt. At age 64, she became the first person in the world to complete the feat.

Like these examples, today’s failure could be the basis for your next win, but only if you choose to learn from your mistakes and proceed to your next plan.

Plan to Succeed but Plan for Failure

Nobody plans to fail, but again, failure is inevitable. It’s going to happen, and by taking this reality into account, you’ll be able to move past any setbacks more easily on your way to your major goals. In other words, plan to succeed, but also plan for failure. Plan in such a way that failing sets you up for future wins and continuously propels you forward.

Not only does this approach empower you to learn from and move past failures quicker, but it also helps you avoid failures before they happen by examining all your options and choosing the paths most likely to succeed.

To be clear, it requires courage to hold a positive perspective on failure. There may be times when you struggle with fatigue, but if you create a meticulous master plan and commit to growing with each mistake, then failure becomes part of the adventure.

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