Monday 9 January 2017

How To ... Succeed at Failure

Last week I took part in the Cambridge Libraries Conference 2017 where I sat on a panel discussing failure. This is something we don't discuss enough as a profession, probably because it's always a little embarrassing to admit that you've failed at something, but I think it's an important topic to cover.

It's inevitable that you will fail at something at some point in your career, whether this be a job application, project or an interview. If you don't then I would seriously begin to question what has been going on behind the scenes! With this in mind it's only sensible to prepare for it so you can deal with it when it comes. This is particularly true if you are dealing with professional failure. People have long memories and if you handle things badly it could reflect poorly on you for some time and damage future chances.

I was tasked with talking about failure in job interviews. Given my struggles to get a full time job I thought I was quite qualified to take part! I've applied for multiple jobs across Cambridge libraries over the last few years (including jobs that I was already doing on a temporary or part time basis). For one role I applied seven times before I was finally successful! I learnt a lot about applications, interviews and rejections over the course of this process. Below are some of the points I raised and I hope the tips will be helpful.

  • It's normal and completely acceptable to feel rubbish if you don't get the job you apply for. If you're not a bit upset then this tells you something about how much you really wanted the job. It's important to acknowledge these feelings and self-medicate with chocolate/wine/Netflix as appropriate. What you mustn't do is allow this part to drag on too long and take over.
  • Think about it this way - failure is a by-product of innovation and trying new things. This is something that I heard at IFLA and it's stuck with me. New professionals and those who are really active in the profession are likely to fail more as they get involved in more things and there is nothing wrong with this - it's just about experimenting and finding things out. What your mother told you was true - how do you know you don't like something until you've tried it?
  • When you get rejected for a job it's a good idea to ask for feedback. It takes guts as no one really likes having their failures discussed face to face but it's worth doing as you can find out how to improve for the next time. You might even find out that you were the second choice for the role. Whether that makes you feel better or worse is open to interpretation...
  • Turn failure into a learning opportunity. If you get the feedback that you lack a particular skill then you know what to work on for next time. Was your interview or application bad? Then try to develop these skills. A lot of this is just trial and error and you will get to grips with it over time. Try getting hold of the job specification for your dream role and develop the skills they are looking for. That way when it comes along you will be prepared.
  • Learn to move on. Sometimes no matter what you do there is someone more qualified who will get the job. Does this hurt - yes. Can you do much about it - no. So move on. One of my biggest professional regrets is not moving on from that role I applied for seven times sooner. I got so fixated on trying to prove to myself and others that I could get the job that I ignored other opportunities trying to get a job that I was almost done with it as soon as I got it. It all worked out well in the end but sometimes I think I could have saved myself a lot of heartache. 

This is just one experience and point of view of failure. If anyone has any other experiences they would like to share then please let me know in the comments section. If nothing else we can all have a group hug and commiserate together! 


  1. This is all great advice! I particularly like the point about asking for feedback after job interviews.

    I failed at my first attempt interviewing for a job at the library I currently work at, but when I requested feedback I learned I had been the second choice, and got some really good, constructive criticism about what I could have done better. Without having had this feedback, when I saw another job at the same library come up a while later I may well have ignored it, thinking I didn't have a chance: as it was, I applied and was successful on my second attempt!

    I also love "failure is a by-product of innovation and trying new things" - that's going to be my new motto :)

    1. I know a lot of people who hate the idea of asking for feedback (me included) but if it's given in a constructive way it can be really helpful. A lot of the time my applications involved people and libraries I already knew but I'm not sure if that made asking for feedback better or worse!

  2. Some of my greatest learning has come from failure. I had the courage to move from one sector to another as a result of the experience. In point of fact learning to embrace and move forward with new purpose from failure builds into an individuals resilience, and as such I find that after an increasingly short time of chest beating and sadness I am more than ready to jump on the next opportunity with increased enthusiasm! This is a life skill in itself. Thanks for your honesty as i believe this is certainly a way in which to inspire others to think in similar ways!

    1. Thanks for your comments. For me personally 'jumping ship' and moving from the familiar came with a huge risk of failure and it took a LOT of convincing for me to do it. It was worth it though and I wish I'd done it sooner!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Claire. It was fantastic to have failure of different types addressed at the conference - we needed more time for discussion!

    I think it's well worth using failed job interviews as an opportunity to examine your motives for applying for the job in the first place. I've certainly felt relief after being rejected for jobs that I'd already realised would not be a great fit or were more of a potential escape route than something to aim for in themselves. And then I've wondered if I'd somehow communicated that feeling subconsciously during the interview.

    p.s. think this is the first time I've commented alongside another Sonya - feels a touch surreal...

    1. Thanks Sonya. I know what you mean. There are some jobs I've applied for because my hand was forced or because I felt I should and I was relieved when I didn't get them. Having sat on interview panels it does come across if people seem uninterested (although I wonder how much is nerves). One thing it did teach me is the importance of relying on your instinct. You are likely to spend a lot of time at work and you need to be happy. If you have a little voice telling you not to apply then you should listen to it.

      P.S. Sorry about the (Another) Sonya thing. Completely a Blogger quirk!