How to Handle Failure in the Workplace


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts” ~ Winston Churchill

Many famous people have experienced different types of “failures”: Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job.  Walt Disney was fired because an editor felt he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.  Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts 3 times. J.K. Rowling had her first book turned down by publishers numerous times and was a single mom living on welfare.  After his first small movie role, Harrison Ford was told by a movie executive that he would never succeed in the movie business. Lady Gaga was dropped by her first record label after 3 months, and the list goes on. No matter how famous, everyone experiences failure at some time in their lives. The question to ask yourself is: How do you pick yourself up and move on?

Have you ever experienced a failure here at Whitman, at your job on campus, or learning some new skill? Think about a time when you felt you didn’t do as well as you thought you should. You didn’t perform at your best during an athletic event. How about getting your first C or D in one of your classes? Have you ever handed in a paper that a professor turned back to you marked up in red ink? Have you applied for a summer job that you didn’t get? Failure when looked at as a “negative” can put you in a space of inertia and a feeling of being unable to move forward. Failure looked at as “a learning experience” can be considered a road to opportunity and success.

Initially failure can be very frustrating. But reframing failure as a tool for learning can help you to move past self imposed barriers. The Internship Doctor is here to help!

Here are 4 tips to help you to handle failure or setbacks during your summer experience:

1. Take responsibility but don’t take it personally.

It’s important to take responsibility for both your successes and your failures. When you do something well, be proud of it. When you fail you are probably hoping that no one will notice. These experiences do get noticed, and you are probably your own greatest critic. Own up to the experience, and don’t make excuses. Talk with your supervisor to create steps for learning, and moving forward. Remember to separate the failure from your identity. Just because you didn’t do something to the best of your ability, doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Personalizing the failure can impact your self-esteem and may keep you from moving forward and trying new things. Reframe the experience as a setback rather than as a failure. Ask yourself: “What can I do now?”

2. Learn from the experience and find the “silver lining”.

Often the hardest thing to do is to go to your supervisor and explain what happened. Your supervisor will respect you more if you are open and honest with them. Talk about what happened and why it happened, and what you have learned from the situation. Ask them for their feedback about what you could have done differently. Explore what worked and what didn’t, then brainstorm ideas on how to move forward. Work with your supervisor to come up with a new plan. Sometimes the “silver lining” is what didn’t work which opens the door to new and unique ideas.

3. Accept that failure is part of the process.

Anything worth working towards is going to involve some failure. Very few new experiences are perfectly executed. Expect that in your learning process you may stumble. Think about learning a new program on a computer, or the multiple drafts of a paper you wrote for a class at Whitman. Each experience involves making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Don’t let a setback stop you from moving forward. You will feel frustrated, no doubt about that. Make adjustments to your experience. Remember that the failure is not your final destination, just steps along your journey.

4. Remember, you are not alone!

No one works in a vacuum. Often your personal reaction to a setback can result in you having a less than objective perspective. Talk with people you know and trust (the SEC staff are available as a resource for you) to provide you with a different view of the situation.  Experiencing failure is universal. Hearing how other people have dealt with setbacks can help you to move from a negative mindset to a more proactive approach.

Use failure in the workplace as an opportunity for growth. You can let it stop you or you can be proactive in using that experience to move you forward.

“Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” ~ Nelson Mandela

The Internship Doctor 🙂


Contact Gayle Townsend, Assistant Director of Career Development, who is responsible for career counseling and career development programs in the Student Engagement Center at Whitman College (

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