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What I Learned From Failing at Work

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Sometimes getting it wrong can be a benefit in the long run.

Even high performers fail at work sometimes. Maybe the job turned out to be a bad match for your skills, or perhaps the work turned out to be different than advertised.

Whatever the reason, it's important to learn from your failures. Even if you get fired or things go terribly wrong in some other way, you can turn the situation into a positive.

It's also important to remember that lots of successful people failed miserably before reaching their goals. For example, before becoming arguably the most successful coach in National Football League history, Bill Belichick was fired by the Cleveland Browns.

That firing taught Belichick a number of things. He learned that when it came time to take his next head coaching position, fit and management support meant a lot. That's why he passed on an opportunity to lead the New York Jets and ended up taking over the New England Patriots.

Here, then, are some tips from our Foolish investors about how to get by at work, and how to deal with things if you come up short on the job.

A woman has her head down on a desk

Failing at work can be a learning experience. Image source: Getty Images.

Make sure the job is a good fit

Selena Maranjian: A very long time ago, I left a job that just wasn't working out. Several things were working against me there. For starters, I had negotiated a higher salary for myself that was low compared with what others with my credentials were making elsewhere but was also high for that particular workplace and position. So although management had approved the salary by offering it to me, they also resented it.

Next, I wasn't given much training in the kind of analysis that needed to be done, and I hadn't learned it elsewhere, so I ended up often frustrated, while frustrating my bosses, too. It was simply not a great match between me and that company and position.

A key lesson here is to seek and secure jobs that are a good fit for you. Start by giving a lot of consideration to what your strongest interests are and what your key skills are. Your odds of success will be higher if the nature of the work really interests you and you have the skills most needed for it.

It can help to talk to others in the profession about the nature of the work, too. You may not realize that it involves a lot of telephone calls or a lot of writing or some other activities that you don't love.

When you're in a job that's a great fit for you, success will probably come more easily, and that can lead to raises and promotions more easily, too.

Don't spread yourself too thin

Maurie Backman: I'm the type of person who's always believed in pushing myself to the limits at work -- even if that meant taking on way more responsibility than my managers would naturally expect. Such was the case when I worked at a marketing company and was asked to contribute to two major projects in addition to my primary job, which already ate up a good 50 to 60 hours of my week.

I knew that agreeing to both projects would leave me stretched incredibly thin, but I didn't want to let others down. More so than that, I wanted to prove to them, and myself, that I was capable of doing it all.

Big mistake. Almost immediately, I found myself in a situation where I was working 15 hours a day and still not getting everything done that I needed to accomplish. After about a week, I was asked to drop off both projects because my contributions just weren't meeting expectations.

It was disheartening at first, but I learned a valuable lesson: It's one thing to push yourself to do the best possible job, but it's another to take on an unrealistic workload.

What I should've done in that situation was say yes to one of the two projects and excel there, rather than fail at both. And while I still have a tendency to pile on the work, I'm more careful about not over-committing. Ultimately, I'd rather do a really good job at one thing than risk failing at two.

Learn your weaknesses

Daniel B. Kline: From early in my working career, I generally succeeded pretty quickly. I got jobs, won promotions, and received accolades that, while deserved, also served to make me a tad arrogant. That changed when I took a position at a music magazine, where I was not only the low man on the totem pole, but I also proved to be bad at parts of the job.

In that position, which was about 20 years ago, part of my job involved record-keeping and a fastidious attention to detail. That aspect of the work was much less enjoyable than the writing and website editing that made up most of the job.

Because I had always done well, I simply assumed the harder, less pleasant part of the job would fall into place. Instead of giving it more attention and getting it done first thing, I tended to put those tasks off, leading to my scrambling to finish them as deadlines approached.

It was a disastrous approach that led to all sorts of mistakes, angry bosses, and my leaving the position slightly ahead of getting fired. I caused the situation and deserved the blame, but it taught me a key area of weakness -- and a little humility.

In future positions and to this day, I always do unpleasant tasks or ones that I'm not as good at first. That leaves time for corrections and to get help if I need it. It also makes doing the work I enjoy more pleasant, as when I get to it I no longer have less pleasant tasks hanging over my head.

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