Life & Business

10 Women Talk About HOW to Learn From Failure

by Grace Bonney

It’s impossible to end a chapter in your life, work or professional, without looking back at least a few times to see what you might have done differently if you knew then what you know now. I used to think I didn’t have regrets in life — that that was somehow a waste of time — but now I try my best to recognize them and learn from them, rather than pretend they aren’t there. But rather than letting those mistakes or regrets turn into shame, I try to unpack them a bit and see what sort of valuable lesson is inside that tough time that I can carry forward with me. So while I don’t relish mistakes and failures (and believe me, I’ve had many), I do appreciate being able to have some time and space to look at them and see what they can offer in terms of growth and understanding.

Today I chose 10 of my favorite “learning from failure” stories that designers have shared with us over the years here at Design*Sponge. Whether you work in design or not, these moments (and the lessons that come with them) are universal and can apply to almost any life or work problem that pops up. I think it’s helpful to take the sting out of the word failure or mistake and to remind ourselves that yes, everyone has moments like this. Even Oprah. And talking about those moments and finding the lessons is them can be deeply empowering and confidence-creating. Here are 10 to help you learn how to embrace the bumps in your life and grow from them… xo, grace

“While I was living in Germany, I had a client whose English was not the best, and my German was pretty much non existent, but he still wanted work with me based on seeing my work and a recommendation he got from a friend. Needless to say, there were several things that were lost in translation and, as a result, both the client and myself were not pleased with a finished product, one which I learned later did not meet his expectations. I felt like a complete failure. He was actually the first client I worked with after being in Germany for only about two months at that time, and that experience taught me a valuable lesson: It showed me how important market research and communication are, why it is imperative to know who your customer is, and it also taught me to not jump right into a situation without being properly prepared.” –Bessie Akuba

“Okay, real talk — I am so bad with emails. It’s definitely the one area of my business where I feel like I’ve dropped the ball more than once. It’s something I’ve struggled with since day one and something I’m constantly trying to improve on, but I came to realize that when it came to the back-and-forth emails necessary to design/work out all the details of a custom piece, the stress was killing me. It finally got to a point where I decided that I needed to redesign how I conducted business or I was going to constantly feel like I was failing and falling behind, so I implemented a different way of communicating with clients that played to my strengths instead of my weaknesses. Now I try to either set up an in-person meeting or a video call to replace weeks of back and forth and trying to explain visuals through email. This way I have an experience that I really enjoy: it’s easier to explain design ideas or show visual aids; I get to speak to clients face-to-face and really get to know them; and best of all, when a meeting is over, it’s over! Not something that gets added to my to-do list that can get lost in the shuffle.” –Emi Grannis

“I was offered an internship at a TV network and the dean of my department was so unsupportive. He didn’t see how the internship correlated with my curriculum. I’m not a “no” person, but by time I convinced him this was the direction [in which] I needed to go, the position had been filled within the hour.

[In] that very moment, I realized asking for permission isn’t going to work for me. My spontaneous opportunities need me to have a free schedule. As a business owner, you can write a timeline for launches, you can make a business plan, sales strategies, etc. but don’t be so caught up in the schedule that you’re not open to the perfect, unexpected move for your brand.” –Kristen Elise Brown

“I’ve learned that people are the greatest asset for a business. Great people can make a business fly and feel like the gears are always moving in conjunction with one another. I used to have a very hard time firing or letting go of employees. I used to believe that I could change bad habits and apathetic employees. I used to hang onto employees even if they were impeding the company goals. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. When the team doesn’t have common goals, it can’t work well together.” –Etsuko Yashiro

“There’s a Mary Oliver poem where she says, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” It’s a quote that I have above my desk, not out of heartsickness, but rather to remind myself that every major failure I’ve had or mistake I’ve made has ended up benefitting me in some way, whether it’s in making me realize what I am good at, or what not to do in the future.

When I was 17 I was so convinced that acting was the way in which I wanted to tell stories that I went to London to be classically trained and spent almost four years working toward that goal. It was like a case study in self destruction, I believed failure was not an option and was so driven by that fear that I didn’t clock that I was miserable, and I never asked myself if I liked acting. It took trying very hard, failing repeatedly, and being constantly unhappy for me to finally sit down and examine what it was that I wanted to do. Quitting acting scared me to death, I felt like I was losing a community and an identity, but it was also so liberating and it led me straight to finding what it was I liked and was good at. It’s still a constant journey, I’m still making mistakes and I’m extremely hard on myself when I do, but those experiences for me have ultimately all had value. I should emphasize, though, that this is not the case for everyone, and my being able to move through these failures and mistakes is very much tied to the support I have from the people in my life and the inherent privilege that I have as a white cis person. I’m very aware of that, and very fortunate and grateful to be in a position where I can overcome some of my more spectacular mistakes.” –Kate Fisher

“I used to work for free more times than I would like to admit even after I graduated; I had convinced myself that it was a great way to make connections while still building my portfolio. It’s important to value the work that you do, if people are interested in working with you, they should be willing to pay you fairly. It’s also important not to beat yourself up over the mistakes you’ve made and are going to make in the future, failures happen and that’s okay. Remember that more often than not, you learn greatly from your mistakes, regardless of just how tough they are. You simply have to keep going and push forward.” –Cristina Martinez

“We have had some big shifts over the years as our skills and experience have grown, and whenever we’ve upped our game, I’ve felt concerned about leaving our old market and entering into a new one. Aeolidia began a year before Etsy did, and the crafters that Etsy catered to were our original clients: people with a hobby that they were interested in turning into a business. Over time, our work got so detailed, time-consuming, and valuable that we weren’t able to keep the low prices we started out with, and our client base began to change. Leaving our beloved beginner crafters was scary and a bit sad. These were the people that I felt comfortable with and I was still such a champion of their businesses! It felt weird that our work no longer fit their budget.

I just hate turning away a feisty business that I admire, so for many years, we tried to find ways to accommodate everyone. We would try to work within a client’s budget by doing less for them than they really needed. I was breaking all my own rules about never cutting corners on a project. Sadly, we found that in trying to please everyone we weren’t pleasing anyone. By investing less than we normally would in a project, we weren’t meeting our clients’ expectations. Clients started getting upset and my team was beginning to feel burnt out.

We were diluting our brand trying to cater to everyone. I knew something had to change. I had to get realistic about where our area of expertise was: helping businesses at the tipping point who need a push away from their DIY efforts and over to where they can make much bigger sales. This is such rewarding work for us, because it’s a partnership. Our clients have used their strengths and skills to create a great product and grow a loyal following. We can then use our strengths and skills to push them past whatever has been holding them back. After working with us, our clients are ready for whatever opportunities knock at their door. Instead of trying to have something for everyone, we’re now focusing on being everything to someone.” –Arianne Foulks

“During the beginning stages of Haremesque, I was dead-set on how my candle containers should look. They could only look a certain way. Unfortunately, that ‘look’ was not cost-effective and didn’t make much sense at the time, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to settle for anything less than what I had in mind. It took me a while, and I lost a lot of time, but I finally let it go. One day, I was roaming the city for inspiration and came up with the idea of using cement. It took me less than 24 hours to come up with a new container idea. I wasted so much time being stubborn, and I learned that sometimes you just have to let things go and, by letting go, you’re not always settling for less. I’m so in love with my cement containers and can’t imagine my candles looking any other way. It’s an essential part of my brand.” –Azza Gallab

“There are too many to name, but I will share this one: I hosted an event once that was meant to serve as the launching pad for a new group program. The event was a great success, however, I totally botched my pitch at the end and no one, not one single person, signed up for the program. While I was slightly devastated, it taught me that I really need to learn how to be a better salesperson and that I need to have a strategy for how I enroll students in programs of that nature. Since that event, I’ve been able to successfully launch a more refined version of the program that I pitched during that event, and the women enrolled in the program are amazing and we are having so much fun. I think that having had experiences where you didn’t get the response you were hoping for allows you to have tremendous gratitude when you are able to figure out how to make things work, and you get a totally different result. Going through and leading the program that I’m leading now is incredible and I don’t think I would have the same sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude had I not had that botched launch.” –Amanda Miller Littlejohn

“OMG, I’ve learned so much from the mistakes I’ve made! When I finished grad school, my plan was to work for myself, and if it didn’t pan out I would look for a full-time teaching job. It was the first time I’d actually pursued the idea of freelancing full-time. During that time, my blog, Fly, was doing really well. My audience was growing, the blog was generating income, and it was also working as a great way to attract more freelance opportunities.

My biggest mistake was not fully understanding what that meant. At that time I had done a blogging project with the Gap and artwork for a limited-edition series of Converse shoes for Free People, which were both amazing projects, but for some reason it didn’t click for me that the reason that work was coming to me was because of the work I was sharing on my blog. Instead of posting more work, sharing more of my process and more about my experiences, I was producing content about what other women were doing. Let me just say, I absolutely love highlighting the work of others. It’s inspiring, and supporting other women who are pursuing their creative passions feeds me. But I completely forgot that I too was a woman looking to create for a living. What I know now but didn’t realize then was that my blog, and the other social media platforms to come soon after, was an extension [of] my portfolio. Not realizing this then kept me from actively promoting and getting my work out there as one should when they are trying to get more work. So eventually the freelance opportunities slowed down and I had to face the reality that I had to look for a full-time job. When I couldn’t find one, I had to move back home with my mom. It was a really rough time for me.

But I needed that lesson because it taught me to be more strategic about how I connected with my audience and how to attract more work. Looking back, the framework was there, but there was no vision, no plan, and I wasn’t consistent with promoting what I could do as a designer/illustrator.” –Andrea Pippins

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