Simple Ways to Turn Career Failures Into Something Useful

Career failures stink. But, what if you had a way to take your failures and turn them into something that would help you for years to come? Here are a few ways to turn the tables on career failures.


  • Workforce Development Columnist
    Specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement. Has 25 years experience.
Simple Ways to Turn Career Failures Into Something Useful

Are you not sure nursing is for you? Have you made a recent job change only to find that the new company is worse than the last? Or, maybe you made your first med error at work, and you are dreading talking to the nurse manager or family member about it.

I remember my first med error and the first time I felt like a total failure at a job. They are memories that even after years have gone by can stir up lots of emotion. But, what I have learned over the years is that failures don't define me. And, quite honestly, neither do successes. They help to tell the story of who I am as a nurse, but certainly do not singularly define who I am.

Guess what? Failures don't define you either! So, no matter what happened yesterday, last week, or last month that you are still beating yourself up over - it's time to move on! Let's discuss a few things you need to remember when dealing with failure so that it is something useful to you for years to come.

It's Okay to Fail

No one likes failure, but it's not always a bad thing to experience. How you react to the failure is the bigger issue. Are you going to allow it to cripple you or empower you?

After a bad workplace situation, I felt like a complete failure. One day while wallowing at the bottom of the "career failure" bucket, I made a simple list of my "dreams." One of them was to become a freelance healthcare writer. That was more than a year ago.

If I hadn't failed, I might still be in that same thankless job doing the same boring things I had been doing for the three years before that. It was okay to fail.

Own the Failure Before It Owns You

One of the best ways to change the negative energy after a failure is to simply own it. Yes, you messed up. But, unless someone died or you did something illegal, it will likely be okay. You must own up to failures to move on.

It happened. It's awful. You can't change it, but you can learn from it.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Some of the most successful people in the world have made mistakes. Consider this:

  • Oprah was fired from her first job as a TV anchor in Baltimore
  • Walt Disney was told he lacked imagination and had no good ideas
  • Albert Einstein was thought to be mentally handicapped as a child

None of the people gave up. They learned from their mistakes and kept on moving.

Now, learning from your mistakes doesn't always mean you should get back on the same horse. Sometimes, learning from your mistakes means it's time to move on. The lessons in mistakes are not always easy to learn, and they are not the same for every person who makes the same mistake. So, don't judge yourself against others, discover your own lessons.

Stop the Negative Self-Talk

When you mess up, do you immediately start a mental barrage of negative self-talk? Me too! I have caught myself saying things like "you're so dumb" or "what an idiot" after making a mistake. It's an easy trap to fall into.

The problem with negative self-talk is that you are always listening. The more you tell yourself you are dumb, the more you will believe it.

But what if the mistake was dumb? Well, then call the mistake dumb, but you my dear, are a fantastic nurse who needs to learn from this and move on!

At Least You Tried

I've talked to several people over the years who have left jobs because they thought they were in a bad one, only to find out that not only was the grass, not greener, it was downright pungent.

But, most of these people I know have come out better in the end. Learning a new lesson is always valuable. If you never tried, you definitely would not have learned any lessons.

Take a med error for example - I can almost guarantee you that not many nurses make the same med error twice. Lessons learned save us from the same pain down the road.

Don't Relive the Failure

It's okay to think about it, after a healthy amount of space and time. Reliving it over and over is not okay.

At some point, you have to move on from the failure and so do others around you who were involved. If you find yourself being reminded of the failure by others, meet with them and ask them to set it aside so that you can move on.

If you keep beating yourself up about it, you need to stop. Write down a few affirmations and keep them in your pocket. When you start beating yourself up, pull one out and read it. Some of my favorites are:

  • I'm the perfect combination of mistakes and perfection.
  • I am strong and smart.
  • I am an awesome nurse.

Have you made any mistakes lately that you're having trouble getting over? Or, maybe you have a few other pieces of advice for those who have made mistakes. Whatever your thoughts may be, we want to hear them. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa Mills has been a nurse for 20 years. She is a freelance writer, career coach, and owner of She enjoys writing about leadership, careers, lifestyle, and wellness.

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Davey Do

1 Article; 10,290 Posts

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years). Has 44 years experience.

Great article, Prof. Melissa!

Some really good down-to-earth advice for those of us who "keep beating (ourselves) up (and) need to stop."

That line reminded me of a entry I I made in my journal back in '06:


I deal with my feelings of failure by making fun of myself. I really feel the pain, but art is a catharsis. When I read and look at the the images later, everything is more in perspective.

For example, I have no recollection of "not recognizing an alternative etiology" on a patient or, at the time, why I was so upset with myself over it.

It all came out in the wash and I'm still working as a nurse at the same facility, so, "like the four winds I blow on"...


1 Article; 2,220 Posts

Specializes in Travel, Home Health, Med-Surg. Has 20 years experience.

Very good article and reminder that we are all human and experience failure at some point or another. I have heard this before: 10% what happens to you, 90% how you react.

Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa Mills, BSN

155 Articles; 320 Posts

Specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement. Has 25 years experience.

Thanks DaveyDo! Love your thoughts and comments. Yes, most mistakes do come out in the wash. But, boy, do we put ourselves through the wringer?! Failure hurts, it's the simple truth.

Thanks again for your thoughts.


Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa Mills, BSN

155 Articles; 320 Posts

Specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement. Has 25 years experience.


Yes! I agree 110% that 90% is how we react. Unfortunately, it can be a difficult thing to control our emotions. :) Thanks for your thoughts.


jbeaves, BSN, RN

1 Article; 15 Posts

Has 2 years experience.

Great article! I know way to many people, myself included, who beat themselves up when they make a mistake and it feels awful to spend that time tearing yourself down mentally.

On the other hand, some of our greatest mistakes double as our greatest lessons if we only dwell long enough to learn from them.

I think the hardest part is letting go once the lesson is learned :)

Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa Mills, BSN

155 Articles; 320 Posts

Specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement. Has 25 years experience.

Jbeaves - Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the comments. Yes, beating ourselves up seems to be the norm for whatever reason. Finding the lesson in failures is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.



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