How Arts Leaders Manage Failure: 4 Strategies to Learn and Grow


The true “F” word.

So many people are afraid of failure, particularly smart, talented ambitious people who set very high standards for themselves and worry that if they ever fail, they feel they just are not up to the job. It’s particularly difficult hard to admit failure in a world where the opportunities are perceived to be scarce and resources are tight as in the world of the arts.

I recently discussed failure and burnout with the rising opera managers who were the members of the 2016 Opera America Leadership Intensive program.

In a fascinating series of group coaching sessions, these incredibly smart, talented and high-powered ambitious young people shared their experiences with failure and learned that:

  • Everyone experiences failure;
  • Failure can be a powerful teaching tool;
  • One can use a host of strategies to move forward to learn from the experience, and
  • Failure is not a career-killer.

The good news?  You have the power to manage failure and move on!

Here are 4 ways that smart arts entrepreneurs handle failure.

What is failure?

A good starting point is to define failure. Here is what our group came up with:

  • Not meeting your high self-expectations or not accomplishing one’s potential;
  • Not meeting and/or disappointing the expectations of others,
  • Not achieving the results that you anticipated.

These are tough standards to achieve! Notice how failure involves high expectations, not achieving what you set out to do and/or disappointing other people.

And failure happens all the time.

  • When your organization invests time and resources in a project that either did not materialize or simply flopped;
  • When you are in a new role and do not have the staff or resources to deliver up to your expectations;
  • When you over promise and do not meet goals;
  • When you work in a toxic environment driven by scarcity and your own high expectations make you feel like a failure for not being able to deliver results;
  • When you cannot manage relationships with difficult people; or
  • When you are afraid to go outside your comfort zone for fear of making mistakes.

What can you do to manage failure and not let it draw you into the downward spiral of despair?

  1. Separate yourself from your failure thoughts

One powerful lesson from our coaching is that everyone experiences failure. Yet, that does not mean that you are a failure. So when something does not go as planned, resist the temptation to label yourself a failure.

  1. Learn from the experience and adopt a growth mindset

Rather than internalize the failure, take stock of the experience.

  • What part did you play?
  • What was out of your control?
  • What can you do better next time?

One helpful strategy is to adopt the growth mindsetthe psychological research-based model of Dr. Carol Dweck, which posits that success flows from hard work, taking risks, being willing to make mistakes, learning from setbacks and moving on, as opposed to relying on your talent and intelligence.

In fact, Dr. Dweck’s research shows that those who have a growth mindset experience much greater success than people who think that success is a function of talent and intelligence and are therefore afraid to rock the boat for fear that making a mistake will expose them as failures.

The good news is that you can learn to adopt the growth mindset by following a 4-step process:

  1. Get over the need for approval

A number of our participants reported feeling like failures when they let other people down. It is understandable that high-achievers want to do a great job—but trying to please others does not work. It sets you up for more harsh self-judgment and often results in holding yourself back and not taking risks out of the fear of failure. So once you have done some self-reflection and come up with new strategies, stick to your guns and stop worrying about pleasing others!

  1. Forgive yourself and move on with new strategies

It is also important to forgive yourself and move on. Indeed, one helpful observation from the group was that everyone in the room had experienced failure and that no one had lost a job over “failing”.

So give yourself a little time to process what happened and then embrace the learning experience.

One of our members who had had a career as a singer observed that in that role, she experienced a lot of “failure” and got used to do. In her administrative role, nothing felt like failure. Instead, it might be disappointing when she did not achieve a hoped-for result but she routinely asks for feedback in order to learn from the experience and then she is able to move on to the next project.

And come up with new strategies! That is also part of the learning process that can help you bounce back from a setback.

Here are some helpful strategies that our leaders came up with:

  • Find a trusted friend or colleague with whom you can share the learning experience. That’s one reason group coaching is such a powerful modality;
  • Face your fears and have the courage to learn from the experience and do things differently;
  • Approach the next situation with different expectations and new strategies to take advantage of what you have learned;
  • Adopt the growth mindset using the 4-step process;
  • Get over the fear of taking a risk for fear of failure; and
  • Get out of your head and don’t let your ego control you.

So take a page from these arts entrepreneurs. If you find yourself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m a failure” when something does not go as planned, try some of these helpful strategies and move on! It’s all part of the learning process that is fundamental to entrepreneurship and success.