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Big Ideas

Why The Deepest Lessons Take Time To Absorb

Bouncing back from big mistakes right away isn't easy - or even always possible. The psychology behind synthesizing a failure and moving on.

As the expression goes, “hindsight is always 20/20.” But how long does it take to get that 20/20 perspective? Here’s what Jerome Chazen, the co-founder of fashion house Liz Claiborne, told Knowledge@Wharton about the biggest mistake of his long career at the company:

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have worked harder to moderate our growth. I think we allowed the growth potential to overtake the company instead of us being in charge of it. It’s a hard thing to explain. But you know, it was so exciting, for me anyway, to report better and better numbers, especially after we went public. I mean I loved it. I loved those quarterly [numbers] that were up 20 percent or 40 percent, whatever. I think, looking back now, that I got carried away, that we should have done things more moderately.

Liz Claiborne went public in 1981. Thirty years later, Chazen had learned the lesson that his excitement over making quarterly numbers was not in the long-term best interests of the company.

This kind of time lag in learning from a mistake is not unusual. For the deepest lessons an individual can learn, it’s required. Only with the passing of time can the intense emotions (positive or negative) of an event fall away and allow us to recognize mistakes and our contribution to them.

Not every mistake takes 30 years to absorb. Small oversights, process errors, results of projects or experiments can be evaluated hours, days or weeks after completion. Failures of these types result from lack of knowledge, routine human error, or poor assumptions.

But with another class of mistakes the stakes are much higher – the setbacks and failures that derail your future plans or call into question your self-image. These are the ones that occur because of your deepest weaknesses and flaws. For this reason, we prefer to avoid thinking about these mistakes, or to attribute them to circumstances out of our control.

Only with the passing of time can the intense emotions (positive or negative) of an event fall away and allow us to recognize mistakes.

I’ll share a personal example. I started my own consulting business in 2006. I expected that all the people who’d benefited from my expertise in my 20-year career would come calling as soon as I hung out my shingle.

Yet it took me seven months to land my first client. A little while later I got a second, who sustained the business for two more years. When that project ended, I couldn’t replace the lost revenue. I realized I couldn’t make a go of it, and took a corporate job. I spent my first year as a salaried employee in complete denial. Any incoming call or email tempted me to jump right back into consulting. I blamed the failure on any reasonable factor – the poor economy, the structural changes in my industry, a dispute with my former company.

All those factors contributed to the situation, but dwelling on them was beside the point. It wouldn’t change anything going forward. I had to understand what I could have done differently, what I should do differently next time.

Dean Shepherd, of Indiana University, studies how people recover from failure. In his book From Lemons to Lemonade: Squeeze Every Last Drop of Success Out of Your Mistakes, Shepherd writes that there are three effective methods for moving ahead after a failed project:

  • Working through the loss – evaluating and analyzing the failure as quickly as possible and putting those learnings to work right away
  • Restoration  – stepping back from the failure and focusing on other projects, using the break to renew our energies
  • An oscillation between the two other strategies

Shepherd states that oscillation is the best approach for most people, offering a middle ground between working through, which can be grueling, and restoration, which is self-nourishing but doesn’t contribute to learning.

If you work independently, it is always useful to have a project already prepared that you can take up when another project fails – call it “Break Glass In Case of Failure.” If the main project falters, you have another project you can pick up right away, which can help with restoration by taking your mind off the failed project. And, if it’s similar enough to the project that failed, can be a conduit for working through the loss.

I blamed the failure on any reasonable factor – the poor economy, the structural changes in my industry, a dispute with my former company.

If you are a salaried employee, you may find you have a fair amount of time to engage in restoration after a failed project. You can turn to other responsibilities, help out on a different project, take a vacation.

Others, however, don’t take much time for restoration. Entrepreneurs are particularly skilled at bouncing back from failure and absorbing lessons quickly. This is partially due to need – they don’t have a salary to fall back on – and partially due to character. Skilled entrepreneurs know that many things don’t work out as planned and that mourning the loss of a project takes time and attention away from other projects that could be successful.

Shepherd’s book profiles an entrepreneur, Charlie Goetz, who endured three failed businesses (and built six successful ones):

[To recover from a business failure,] I am one of these people who like to be left alone. One thing I am doing is thinking. For the first two weeks I am thinking about why it happened. What I could have done differently. In the next two weeks I start to think about what do I do now? What is my next logical step in this situation?

Goetz learns from the failure and begins to move on in just four weeks – a very rapid progression. Even if we’re not seasoned entrepreneurs, we can learn from him. The faster we can gather at least the initial lessons from our mistakes and failures, and the more confident and resilient we are, the sooner we can drive toward our next success.

Just make sure you set aside time for restoration as well. Forgive yourself, and make peace with the failure. In that way, you’ll be ready for the really profound lessons when they present themselves to you, years or decades later.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you find perspective and bounce back?

Comments (21)
  • Frank Drake

    Is this even a real website? Gorgeous but vapid in content. Great headlines. Keep up the great work.

  • Lisa A. Riley

    Such valuable advice for recovering from failed projects. It’s so necessary to take that time to regroup and bounce back. My perspective is you don’t know if any idea or project will work until you dive in, immerse yourself and…give it 150%. With no guarantee, any idea possesses a risk of failure. But you’ll never know unless you try. Creative entrepreneurs tend to be so driven by inspiration and innovation it out ways the risk of failure. That’s why we jump in head first in the deep end. Great article!

  • Sofia Garcês

    Create advice on recovering from failure.
    I feel that some people abandon creative pursuits because they never truly learn to recover from the failures that come with them, and in their pain walk away from it. I feel that if more people stuck with it and learned to move trough the failures we’d have many more brilliant creatives among us!

  • Jonathan Patterson

    I always look at “failure” as necessary, if it occurs. I think of it as learning how not to do something–or, the cost of doing it. And always make sure you take that lesson with you to the next project, if you don’t, THEN you will have failed.

  • James

    This was a really great article. For me, I tend to hold the belief that it’s usually people that are wrong and the universe that’s correct. Failures are simply feedback that we need to change what we’re doing. With enough you tend to end up where you’re supposed to be, not where you “thought” you should be.

    Awesome article!


  • Maureen Bridget Rabotin

    What’s experience but a series of failure (adapted from Einstein). Similar to the grief cycle, we need to go through a process of denial,acceptance, sadness and joy. Learning from each cycle builds on coping mechanisms that enable resilience, self-awareness and growth.

  • James

    That was beautifully put. LOVE the comparison to the grief cycle by the way. So true!

  • jmcaddell

    Thanks for commenting! Shepherd, in his book, notes the parallels with the grief cycle. That was news to me when I read it, but really makes sense when I think about my own failures and their emotional aftermath.

    regards, John

  • jmcaddell

    The cool thing about persisting even after failure, to a future success, is that it helps make the failure worthwhile, something to treasure. As opposed to something shameful, to hide.

  • Sofia Garcês

    Absolutely true and after you’ve done it once it gets a lot easier to believe you can overcome failure the next time.

  • InRecovery

    My career progression depends on passing a set of exams. I’ve tried and failed over and over again for the past 4 years. Depression is a state that has come and gone many a times but has always stayed in the background.

    I’ve now come to a point where I need to re-evaluate and start over again. I am taking time out and going on a much anticipated career break. During this time I will be focusing on lots of little projects which will be developing my skill set one way or another and which will all complement me in passing the exams as well as develop my wider skills in helping me set up my own entrepreneurial projects in areas such as internet marketing, programming, SEO etc.
    Doing something like Habit 7 – Sharpening the Saw (7 Habits by SC – never read the book but its on the list of books to read a week) over the next few months and hitting the trail again. Determined to try one last time to succeed with a fresher and more clearer mindset.
    Sometime, we need to break away from all the noise and dump out the excess baggage from our lives and start over. You may never know how close you came to success otherwise. However, in doing so we should also be manufacturing our exit strategies from paths which will drag you into no-mans-land.

    Thanks for the post. Really appreciated at a time when some sort of ‘push’ was needed.

  • jmcaddell

    I wish you luck, and invite you to remember Louis Pasteur’s words, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and Steven Johnson’s corollary, “Chance favors the connected mind.” Keep connecting!

  • Wrench50
  • tg1

    Thanks, John, for taking the time to write about this topic, but I’m having trouble following the main idea. I don’t want to be snarky, I just want to understand what you are describing.
    The last question ‘How do you find perspective and bounce back?’ has little to do with the article.
    What I read from your piece isn’t about ways to find perspective, or bouncing back, or even learning ‘lessons’ (which I took to mean useful observations for future situations), but rather ‘time, reflection on the failure, and distraction from it help bring the mind to a state in which learning is possible.’
    I’m glad that in your personal anecdote you understood what you could have done differently and what you should do next time. And to realize this, you had to (unintentionally) take the corporate job and spend time away from what you would rather be doing. The lessons you learned, how you applied it, how/if you bounced back are unspecified, but that they happened are assumed. Do I understand that correctly?

  • jmcaddell

    Hi, tg1, thanks for weighing in. You’re right: this piece is focused on the time needed to be ready and able to absorb the deepest lessons of mistakes and failures. It doesn’t “close the loop” on what we can learn from specific failures. I’ve written about that in several other pieces I’ve posted on the site. (A list:… )

    Those pieces go much more into what lessons we can learn from our mistakes, and shares a bunch of stories about them. After I had finished them, though, I felt there was something missing in the overall story. Some theme I hadn’t touched on yet. And after a while, it became clear that theme was time and its place in the learning process.

    Check out those other posts and see if that helps bring things into better focus. As to the story of the failure of my consulting business, I’m still processing the lessons. One in particular is that I need to be much more focused in what I do – to use a baseball metaphor, it is better when selling oneself to be a strong centerfielder as opposed to a utility player (even if you’re a really good utility player).

    Based on that lesson, I am being much more focused in what I work on & talk about – for example, this idea of learning from mistakes.

    Thanks again,


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    Today I will set the button on my business website

  • tg1

    Hi John,
    Thanks for clarifying. I’ll go through your other posts to get a better idea where you’re coming from.

  • deep4di

    I like the concept of the article, but the co-founder of Liz Claiborne’s ‘mistake’ of growing too fast seemed to be a bit of a stretch, and could be difficult for most people to relate to.

  • jmcaddell

    I see your point. I don’t reference what the consequences of the mistake were, and Chazen doesn’t either, in his interview that was the source for the quote.

    At the same time, if he believes he made a mistake, and it still leaves its imprint on him, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. Chazen focuses on the fact that he got excited by reporting the numbers, by the constant, fast rate of growth. And that doesn’t have anything to do with running a business. It’s at best a side effect and at worst an unhealthy distraction. That’s how I read his story.

    Thanks for commenting.

    regards, John

  • certified payment processing

    This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week

  • Barry Kort

    The “grief cycle” can be modeled scientifically.

    See “Cognition, Affect, and Learning

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