The powerful reason why failure is actually an OK option
Author and entrepreneur Sarah Robb O’Hagan explains why you won’t reach the height of your success without a few flops along the way.
Nothing quite terrifies a person like the fear of failure. Whether you’re graduating with the class of 2017 in a few weeks or you’re contemplating a career change, it’s hard not to wonder, what if you fall flat on your face?
But what if you don’t? Sarah Robb O’Hagan, author of Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, says now is the time to step up and lose your fear of failure.
“No one succeeds without failure,” Robb O’Hagan says. “It’s a necessary step on the way to success. So swing hard, do your best, and don’t be afraid. If you play it safe your whole career, you’ll never know what you might have achieved.”
In Extreme You, a kind of Lean In on steroids, Robb O’Hagan relates her life story so far—warts and all. After enduring a spell she now calls her “canyon of career despair,” when she was fired from a handful of high-profile jobs, all while being threatened with deportation, she landed on her feet, going on to lead the reinvention of Gatorade, become president of global fitness firm Equinox, and launch her own content platform Extreme You. Currently, she’s the CEO of boutique fitness studio Flywheel Sports.
“Looking back on that entire tough period, it’s clear that my wrong moves are what led me to my right moves,” she says.
Monster recently spoke with Robb O’Hagan about building a career that, as she puts it, “lets you bring all of you to all you do.”
Q. What’s your best advice for the class of 2017? Is there anything you wish someone had told you at the start of your career?
A. The system is designed to make us all fit in because it’s so much easier for professors, recruiters, and even parents to point you toward a well-beaten path as the “right” way to develop your life and your career. But when you conform to the norm, by definition, you are rounding your edges off, and in my experience, the edges are usually the most interesting parts.
So I think my best answer is, do not worry about your how your first job after graduation—or even your second and third—looks to other people. Your 20s are a time to try different things, to get as much varied experience as you can, and to find out what you’re interested in—not necessarily to lock yourself into any one path.
Q. That’s probably easier said than done for most people, isn’t it?
A. Oh, it is! We put such tremendous pressure on young people now to have the perfect resume, perfect grades, and so on, and then on social media they find this perfect world where it looks like everyone’s crushing it.
Try to avoid striving for perfection because it will make you so much more risk-averse. The most successful people understand what’s unique about them and [use it to benefit] a team or a company. That’s quite different from trying to shrink yourself down into a given role.
Q. What if you’re mid-career and feel like you need a change? How do you get started?
A. In the book, I talk about “checking yourself out,” meaning, you should seek out new experiences. Pick things that appeal to you or that you haven’t done in a long time—or ever.
Then, notice what happens. What grabs your interest? Where do you succeed—or just feel energized—where you wouldn’t have expected it? Those are the areas to work on and develop. It’s never too late! Your experiences will help you with the new path you choose, possibly in some surprising ways.
Q. Let’s say you have a failure or two under your belt. How do you explain that in a job interview?
A. One thing employers look for is self-awareness. Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Early in my career, I was always told never to admit to a weakness—or to make it something irrelevant to the job, like, “I’m a terrible driver,” but that really doesn’t work. It’s much better to be very direct and say, “Here’s why I failed and what I learned from that.”
My own failures taught me I needed to surround myself with people who have strengths I lack and whose skills are complementary to mine, so together we can get great things done. If you can give examples of that kind of teamwork, the interviewer will respect that. It’s much more believable than trying to pretend you’ve never failed at anything.
Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics for Fortune and other publications since 1996. She is the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?