01/23/2014 03:50 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Key to Success? Embrace Failure


I've been doing my rounds of interviews for my new book, Work Smarts, and one of the questions that repeatedly pops up is: How do you bounce back from a failure?

It's a question that hits a nerve because everybody -- and this time, I mean everybody -- has failed at one point. I recount a few of my own failures in the book. And the CEOs I talked to? Some failed exorbitantly.

What makes the difference between someone who fails and loses his or her way and someone who fails and goes on to become a millionaire or billionaire?

It's easy: You get really good at failing.

Barbara Corcoran, the star of ABC's Shark Tank, said in an online interview with Entrepreneur that the deciding factor between a successful or unsuccessful entrepreneur is how quickly he or she recovered after a setback.

"The great sales people take the hit and then they jump right back up. They've been hurt just as much as the next guy, but they work right through it," she said. "If you have that skill, you should be an entrepreneur."

So how do you "fail well"?

For that, I think back to a concept billionaire Graham Weston called the "80/20 rule." In his book, The Unstoppables, Graham wrote that people should spend about 20 percent of their time pondering and thinking and 80 percent of their time actually moving and doing something. It doesn't matter if what you're doing is precisely the thing you need to be doing, it just matters that you're doing something about your situation. As Teresa Taylor, the former COO of Qwest, said to me, as long as you're in "grenade range" of what you need to do, you're moving in the right direction.

The problem, of course, is that most people do the opposite -- they spend a majority of their time fretting and thinking and rethinking how something is going to work and a minority of their time executing. If I can draw an unusual analogy, think about how some people cook -- a certain kind of person needs to have all the ingredients lined up, chopped and prepared before they can even turn the stove on. I've learned that a much more efficient, dynamic way is to chop, slice, sauté as you go. Stop over thinking and just do it.

Which is not to say that "failing well" is easy. It is hard work to pick yourself back up immediately and keep going. But the quicker you do it, the more chance you have for success.

One radio host asked me, "What if you keep getting fired or losing your job? You keep failing?" My answer is the same to him as here: What choice do you want to make? Do you want to give up or do you want to get back on your feet one more time? If you give up, you're destined for failure. If you try one more time, you don't know what may lie beyond. To me, the choice is pretty clear.

If you liked this blog, you'll love Work Smarts: What CEOs Say You Need to Know to Get Ahead available on and other fine booksellers. Signed copies are also available at