How to Face (and Grow From) the 6 Stages of Failure

Strategies for Learning From Failure (and How to Navigate Its 6 Stages)

No matter who you are, facing failure is hard. When we fail, our gut reaction is to turn around
and hide. Our survival instincts kick in to avoid embarrassment. Think about it. If you try ice
skating and have a bad fall, you can either decide that you aren’t good at ice skating and vow to
never try it again, or you can choose to return to the rink and improve gradually. By choosing to
keep going, we develop a growth mindset.

When people fail, they often rely on a sort of fight-or-flight response instead of asking, “How do
you learn from this?” People mistakenly think that failure is a direct reflection of their skill sets,
abilities, and talents. For instance, my biggest and most embarrassing failure was a startup I
started: Its growth skyrocketed quickly, and then it failed almost as dramatically.

The 6 Stages of Failure

Contrary to what many might believe, failure, like that of my startup, is not a one-step process.
We actually go through six different stages each time a setback occurs:

Stage 1: Denial

First, failure tends to produce early warning signs. Unfortunately, our cognitive biases will often
ignore these signals. Instead of accepting failure, we deny that it exists and focus on only
positive feedback. This deludes us into thinking that everything is going according to plan when,
in fact, it is not.

Stage 2: Doubling Down

When we first recognize a potential failure, our gut instinct is to double down, or “escalate
,” on decisions that aren’t going well. Instead of making a necessary pivot, we often
believe that we can turn things around if we just stay the course. In reality, we are only digging a
deeper hole.

Stage 3: Shame

Once our failure becomes undeniable, we quickly fall into the shame stage. This stage is rarely
visible to others, but it takes a significant toll on our self-esteem. The shame we feel from
failure worsens anxiety and hampers our engagement at work.

Stage 4: Defensiveness

Even though we quietly punish ourselves for our failures, we articulate to others numerous
reasons why it wasn’t our fault. We will blame individuals, systemic issues, or forces of nature

beyond our control for what happened. When in defensive mode, we may also tell ourselves that
there was nothing we could do differently, further shielding ourselves from learning from our
failures and preventing a growth mindset.

Stage 5: Moving on

After we’ve exhausted our defensive excuses with anyone who will listen, we usually attempt to
put the failure behind us and never speak of it again. We move forward; we find our next project.

Stage 6: Looking for the Assets

There’s a sixth stage that most people never take advantage of, but it’s the one that holds all the

During this stage, you sift through the rubble left by your failure and uncover all the potential
assets you’ve gained through your efforts — and those assets should exist, because nothing is
ever a 100% failure. This audit of the failed project involves identifying systems and processes
that you developed, relationships, insights, intellectual property, tools, and other lessons to
consider how your experience transforms your work. We take what worked, learn from what
didn’t, and create something new (and better).

That failed startup I started was my lowest point as a professional. And as soon as I figured out
where we had gone wrong, I started keeping a journal about the experience. I had to document
what went wrong and what I wished I could have done differently.

That journal eventually became my first book — a New York Times best-seller that has been
used in over 100 universities to teach entrepreneurship and innovation and helped me launch a
whole new career as a keynote speaker. My biggest success came as a result of my biggest
failure. But only because I decided to look for the assets rather than hiding from the shame.

To learn how to “fail better” each time, we must avoid getting stuck in any one stage of failure
and try to get to Stage 6 as quickly as we can. When you are inevitably faced with failure in the
future, remember these six stages and focus on that final leap toward new opportunity and

diana kander logo in black


Sign up for Diana's monthly newsletter that gets you focused on thriving rather than just surviving.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram