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How should you face up to a huge mistake?

Failure isn’t the end of the world and if you know how to start over, it can even be highly instructive! But the ability to learn from mistakes and setbacks isn’t something you’re born with: you need to work on yourself and, more importantly, keep a firm grip on your emotions. How can you leverage the bitter taste of failure into a pick-me-up that helps you get back on your feet?

The perception of failure varies considerably from individual to individual since each one of us invests in a project for different reasons: for example, some of us hope to have our skills recognized, while others are looking for autonomy or a sense of belonging.

Regardless of the initial motivation, the more important a project is to you, the higher the emotional price in the event of failure. Failure isn’t something we seek out, nor is it easy to live with, but one thing is certain: no one can escape it. We all want to learn from our mistakes and setbacks, but it certainly doesn’t happen automatically. Fortunately, where there is disappointment, there is also an opportunity to make headway…as long as you eliminate the emotional barriers that will hinder the learning process.

Keep cool: know when it’s right to pull out

Even when a project is clearly doomed to fail, the decision to pull the plug is a difficult one. We often doggedly cling on, even when common sense is telling us to let go. The reasons for this insistence are many and not always logical: an unrealistic feeling of confidence, procrastination, being blinded to reality.

The refusal to admit mistakes

Terminating a project into which you’ve poured sweat, time and money can seem like giving up. You know that you can’t solve the problem, but by persevering, come hell or high water, with a project that’s doomed, you’re trying to prove to others – and yourself! – that you were right in spite of everything.

The unrealistic expectation that you’ll get your winnings back

It might be time to listen to the warning signs if you’re beginning to resemble a gambler in a casino who places a bet, loses, and then bets even more in the hopes of winning back what they’ve lost. This is a dangerous downward spiral! When deciding whether or not to halt a project, the initial investment should not be taken into account. Instead, the decision must be based solely on the return on investment at the project’s scheduled end-date.


Postponing an inevitable decision is a classic defense mechanism when facing a threat. This avoidance reaction is all the more marked as the decision-maker feels responsible for the failure.

Take a step back now so you can cut loose more effectively later

Is there an “ideal” timespan for getting ready for failure? No, says Shepherd: this will vary depending on the individual and the circumstances.

Learn how to prepare yourself

Excerpt from Business Digest N°296, Mai 2019

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Françoise Tollet
Published by Françoise Tollet
She spent 12 years in industry, working for Bolloré Technologies, among others. She co-founded Business Digest in 1992 and has been running the company since 1998. And she took the Internet plunge in 1996, even before coming on board as part of the BD team.