Failing Forward: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Their Mistakes

Startup Central
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Behind any successful entrepreneur is a wealth of mistakes. Discover how to turn your failures into your greatest achievements.

Passionate about a path to entrepreneurship? It can be a road filled with fulfillment — and trial and error.

Lacey John — an Olympic silver medalist in freestyle relay — is director of the Alumni Career Lab at the University of Arizona, an excellent resource for graduates. It supports the diverse vocational needs of the Wildcat family no matter the professional focus or career level through digital and personal connections. “We provide professional tips, advice and insights that will be relevant and impactful for alumni across their career lifecycles,” John says.

Below, John shares key strategies that can help you navigate the challenges that come with the trial and error of entrepreneurship.

In your experience, is failing a natural event on the path to entrepreneurial success?

John: When I think of dealing with failure, I reflect back on my time as an athlete. I was swimmer at the University of Arizona and went on to compete for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics, where I won a silver medal. This experience has given me a unique perspective that I continue to apply to my life and current professional role.

In general, I believe sports provide an arena where it is easier to break down some of these more complicated topics. For example, physical strength is only achieved after training and challenging muscles on a consistent basis. As the muscles are continuously taxed with the increased load, they grow and develop to meet that demand and we then see and feel the physical effects of the training. Oftentimes, we reach a point of failure in this training process to determine the current limits. Using this example, we can see that failure is really a crucial part of the learning process and growing as a professional — no matter your career choice.

How can entrepreneurs best overcome failures?

John: Entrepreneurs are much like those athletes who choose to compete in individual sports rather than team sports. They are the ones standing on the starting block, alone, and have no one but themselves to answer to at the end of the race.

As a result, their failures can seem more personal. However, I would not necessarily describe the failures entrepreneurs face as “mistakes.” Pushing boundaries and finding limits are necessary components of their journeys.

"I would mention the importance of mentors and a community to help guide and champion you along the journey."

Why can failing actually be a valuable experience?

John: Failing is valuable when we approach it with a growth mindset. As in the strength training example mentioned earlier, it is only after consistent and diverse exercises that we see our muscles grow to meet the demands. Professional careers are no different; with every attempt or version, we pursue perfection and then evaluate where we came up short.

This evaluation produces information that is not good or bad — it is just data. We are the ones who attach meaning to the outcomes or data, and if we can see the progress and keep the belief in what we are doing, we will be able to get to where we need to go much faster.

How can we learn from bad days along the path to plot a better course to success?

John: Those who have chosen an entrepreneurial career must be able to define their own success. This comes from staying present in the process and taking time to process their experiences. This could mean journaling, reports or charts — but it would be important to find a way to track progress.

What resources can Arizona alumni tap into to help along their career journey?

John: I would mention the importance of mentors and a community to help guide and champion you along the journey. I am so excited about our Wildcat Mentor Society program, and the opportunities we can provide for alumni to give back and share their experiences. These real-life success stories are invaluable resources for the next generation, and I encourage young entrepreneurs to create their cabinet of people to support and guide them.