Career failures and how to learn from them

It is a tricky business pointing out that an idea is not as fresh as the promoter thinks.

Generally, we do not want to crush imagination, entrepreneurship, and ambition. But this must be balanced against a responsibility for alerting the next generations of pursuing false paths that lead to dead-ends. Failure is helpful in this respect providing we learn from the failure, which at the very least means documenting it and communicating it.


IllustrationCredit: Dionne Gain

On most occasions, what the young me perceived as new, turned out to be merely the repackaging of an older idea – something my father would often bring to my attention.

However, failure is rarely given much credit. We like winners, instant breakthroughs, revolutions in thinking. We see this in the collective hunger we have for the latest design for living or work.

For instance, take the case of the now pervasive idea of “mindsets”, it is still probably too soon to point out the problems with the original supportive research and the failures to replicate. But it is also too late because it is seen as rude and obstructive to point out to a large organisation that they have just invested millions in a well-meaning new program that is likely to be of dubious merit.


Mindfulness is another that can be put into this category. Evidence is now emerging of the very distinct limits of the effectiveness of this approach to stress management. Indeed, there is an increasingly vocal movement pointing out the inconvenient truth, that if we want genuinely to reduce workplace stress, the place of work, and the practices of work may be more important to address than an individual’s personal meditative practices.

Contexts matter. Things matter like employer attitudes, remuneration, leadership, promotion of safe cultures and operating procedures, the design of work including genuine rest periods and holidays, the pacing of the work, the discretion provided to workers to be able to exercise their skills and knowledge and have a sense of dignity and mastery in their work. And on and on.

The trouble is, this stuff is messy and difficult to alter, and perhaps crucially for those wanting an immediate result, or a revolution in work practice, it can take a lot of time, and may not readily be measurable. It is a lot easier to focus on the individual and make them responsible for their own well-being. It sounds reasonable for a pico-second, until we remember how many lives have been saved by compulsory seat-belts or taxing cigarettes to the hilt.

Yet still, there is the remorseless promotion of instant formulas for career happiness. Just do a 5-minute insight exercise and magically your path will unfold like a yellow brick road in front of you.

Dr Jim Bright, FAPS owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy and is a Director of Ed Tech startup Become Education Email to Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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