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Article 9 min read

What comes next? How to overcome professional failure and career setbacks.

By Ryan Robinson

Last updated July 14, 2022

So, you just got fired from your job.

Or you’ve been doing your own thing, but times are getting tough and it’s just not working out the way you thought it would.

Maybe the side project you’ve been working on for months and finally launched, just got shot down by everyone you know. You’re losing motivation and your chances of escaping the 9-5 this year are looking pretty bleak.

Even worse, you’ve been puttering along at the same job, doing alright (but not getting those elusive positive performance reviews), keeping the same title, earning the same salary you’ve been making for the past few years, all while watching the coworkers right next to you move up in the company.

Regardless of where you’re at right now, something needs to change.

Professional failure can come in many different forms

Trust me, I should know about professional failure.

In my short five-year career since graduating from college, I’ve had five different jobs. I’ve been a staff writer, marketer, freelancer, blogger, and startup founder. I’ve had to move back home with my parents for six months after my second business imploded. I’ve learned first-hand how to lose $6,537 of my hard-earned savings building a product nobody wanted and I’ve tried my hand at getting fired and sued because of a side project.

Through each of my professional failures, here’s what I’ve learned:

It’s not the end of the world.

As much as it feels like everything is crashing down around you in the moment, it’ll get better soon.

You’ll get a new job. Discover your calling as a freelancer in the gig economy. Move back out on your own. Find a new side project that gets you motivated again. Live to take another stab at running your own business after getting back on your feet.

In a few months, your professional failure will feel like a distant memory if you accept the failure for what it is, commit to learning from your mistakes, and consciously give yourself permission to move forward.

In a few months, your professional failure will feel like a distant memory if you accept the failure for what it is, commit to learning from your mistakes, and consciously give yourself permission to move forward.

Four ways to overcome professional failure and career setbacks

During these often emotional professional failures, it’s easy to forget all of the positive things you have to be thankful for.

Your best work, the accomplishments you’re most proud of, the praise you’ve gotten along the way—all now seemingly insignificant in the shadow of your recent failure.

Here’s how to get back on your feet without wasting time.

Schedule a debrief with yourself.

After throwing in the towel on my stagnant business of selling handmade phone cases four years ago, and making the decision to move in with my parents, I was embarrassed. It felt like just yesterday that I’d been telling my friends all about the new business I was quitting my job to focus on.

Flunking out after just a few months of full-time work felt like something my personal brand would never recover from. I was leaving a great living situation with two of my best friends right on the beach in Southern California to head back home to the central valley. The anxiety I felt over the impending isolation was enough to realize that this situation had to be temporary.

But before I could do anything about making my next move, I had to figure out how I was going to recover from this and what my next decisions should be. As with any breakup, when you lose a job or leave a business, you need closure before fully moving on and opening yourself up to new opportunities. Do I reach out to my last employer and see if they’ll take me back? Should I move to a new city and look for jobs? Maybe apply to a few remote positions to start building my savings back up?

As with any breakup, when you lose a job or leave a business, you need closure before fully moving on and opening yourself up to new opportunities.

Immediately after getting settled at home—before applying to jobs, looking for new business opportunities, putting feelers out to my network for freelance work—I blocked off an entire day (distraction-free) on my calendar to analyze the order of events that led to my professional failure. I wanted to determine exactly why my business wasn’t working.

While there were several contributors to why my business eventually flopped, my biggest takeaway was that I’d simply quit my day job too soon—a lesson that’s since gone on to be the cornerstone of what I teach other aspiring entrepreneurs. I left my steady paycheck at the first exciting sign of growth before I’d really figured out how to replicate those first successes. When the momentum flattened out, I hadn’t planned for several months without the same level of income I’d gotten used to with my last job, which meant dipping into my savings. That didn’t last long.

Scheduling a debrief with yourself gives you the forum for objectively looking at your professional failure. Set aside at least a two or three-hour block of time to sit down and write out the order of events that led to the failure.

Even if you don’t reach a life-altering conclusion, challenge yourself to ask difficult questions that probe beneath the surface. If you got fired for underperforming on your sales targets, why were your numbers below expectations? Were the goals set too high? Do you feel like you could’ve utilized your time better? Were the leads coming your way of poor quality? Did you need more training or experience before fully launching into that role? Were you in over your head? Did you have fundamental disagreements with your manager? Maybe you don’t truly love sales?

Share your failure with others.

Once you’ve done your personal debrief, it’s time to move forward and put your failure behind you—forgiving yourself, but not forgetting what you’ve learned. Don’t hide from it, because it’s now a part of you.

While it’s natural in the wake of a professional failure to crawl into bed, stay at home for days, and nurse your wounds until you feel ready to venture back out into the world, carefully limit your time grieving.

The sooner you get out and start sharing your change with others, the better. Sharing doesn’t have to mean being proud of your mistakes, shouting about it from the rooftops, or seizing every opportunity you have to complain about your current position. However, your friends and acquaintances will play a huge role in giving you much-needed support, feedback, outside opinions, and advice on the best way to move forward.

On top of that, your friends and acquaintances are the best starting points for helping you track down your next job. A study from Stanford University professor Mark Granovetter uncovered that 83 percent of people who landed jobs from within their personal network did so through connections they see on average once a year or less versus from their closest group of friends.

In other words, sharing more broadly to your network on LinkedIn, Facebook, and otherwise, that you’ve moved on from your previous company and are now pursuing new opportunities is likely to result in solid new leads for your next move. Reach out to acquaintances who are in the types of jobs you’d like to land next, ask for introductions from your existing network and do what you can to plant the seeds for your next move.

Regain your mojo.

It’s ok to take some downtime—whether it’s days, weeks, or months—to regroup after a professional failure, but start thinking right away about how you can utilize that time to be proactive and start proving you’ve still got what it takes to keep performing. The last question you want to get stumped on in your next interview is explaining how you’ve spent your time off between jobs.

If you know you’ll eventually start looking for a new job, what kind of side projects could you devote twenty hours per week to that’d help advance your career goals?

Maybe it’s time to explore turning one of your hobbies into a new job or consulting practice. You could get started on writing the book you’ve been thinking about for so long. Build an app to demonstrate your skills. Create a portfolio website to showcase all of your best projects over the years.

Getting outside of your comfort zone and meeting new people will also help you regain your confidence. Join a Meetup group for people in your industry, attend networking events, track down people who work at your dream company, and find a way to authentically connect over coffee.

Make your next career move.

Ultimately, you won’t fully recover from your professional failure until you’ve moved on to your next job, decided to go all out with freelancing, or started a new business.

Leverage your existing connections, build new relationships, start interviewing, and when (if) you’re asked about your recent professional failure, thoughtfully communicate what you’ve learned and how you’ve taken the initiative to do something positive with that experience.

Highlight any side projects you’ve been working on and communicate the passion you’ve been directing towards them in your down time—enthusiasm is infectious and a key trait employers look for in new hires. Show people that you can still perform at your best and they’ll begin to believe you have the ability to overcome your failures no matter how great.

Taking on your professional failure in a productive way can teach you more impactful lessons than any of your successes if you give yourself permission to learn and grow from it.

You’ve heard it before: Failure is part of being human. What is not, perhaps, as widely discussed is the upside of failure—that our moments of imperfection can actually make us stronger. Listen as Sport and Performance Psychologist Mark Aoyagi shares some useful tips on how to transform crash-and-burn experiences into stepping stones to success.

Ryan Robinson is an entrepreneur and content marketing consultant to the world’s top experts and growing startups. On his blog,, he teaches over 200,000 monthly readers how to start a profitable side business. Find Ryan on Twitter: @TheRyanRobinson.

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