How to Deal with a Failed Project

failed-projectA failed project can punch the motivation out of the most resilient person. The greatest people have to go through failure. Seth Godin, the marketing master, loves writing about his failures.

To get to where you want to go you need to fail. You have to do it bigger and bigger each time.

You know this is a part of a career. The hard part is dealing with your emotions, so you don’t get too down.

Emotional Traps

I was recently handed three setbacks in one day. A big time blogger sent me a “What the heck are you doing” email, a big time company that I thought was interested in sponsoring my Happy at Work Action Day declined my proposal, and I was scheduled to do a conference call that would give me more clout.

Each one was a lock. At least I thought they were. All of them fell a part.

I feel a part too. I sulked in my home office while trying to piece myself back together. Usually I can recovery quickly, but my expectations were too entrenched.

The results were a big wet slap in the face. You know one of those stinging pains that doesn’t want to go away. Because it’s more than just the rejection.

Most of us rely on hope so much that we let our attachments get the better of us.

You need to find a way to separate from the pain, so you can let the hurt go piece by piece.

  1. Relax with Your Thoughts and Emotions
  2. Understand Why You Were so Attached to a Certain Outcome
  3. Share Your Feelings
  4. Create Plan AA and AAA
  5. Test Out Your Plans
  6. Appreciate Your Passion

You just need to create a method that allows you to process and move on.

1. Relax with Your Thoughts and Emotions

Your most pressing need when dealing with a failed project is your mental state. Your thoughts determine how you feel. If you can’t let go then you will be in pain for a very long time.

You need to find a way to relax with your thoughts and emotions.

I like to do this by…

  • Going for a walk.
  • Meditating.
  • Practicing Yoga.
  • Writing a list of everything that is going on within me.

This may take a few hours or a few days depending on the situation. You need to do an emotional dump, trying to let everything go.

You’ll notice yourself feeling better by noticing increasingly more positive emotions.

2. Understand Why You Were so Attached to a Certain Outcome

Any project has a reason for being. Even making yourself some toast and jelly is a simple and great action. The thing is the failure rate is low.

The more detailed the project the more chances for failure.

Figuring out why you were attached to the outcome is pretty easy to understand. Whether you are writing a book or computer program, you are trying to influence others and make money in the process. If this project fails you feel like a failure.

It’s this attachment that causes the pain. Please take note of this because you don’t want to keep repeating the same mistake.

3. Share Your Feelings

The reason I didn’t want you to share your feelings in the first step is because most of the time it’s all complaining. It only reinforces your negative view of yourself.

Once you can do step 1 and 2 you then can talk to someone objectively about how you feel.

Explain to this trusted friend what happened and begin to formulate a plan of action.

4. Create Plan A, AA and AAA

Creating Three plans is what I recommend to get started on building momentum. I like to call the three plans A, AA and AAA. I don’t like to think of the next plan of action to be a A, B or C because you are building on top of your original plan.

You may want to dump your original idea, but first figure out if you can make it better. Create plans that will make your project even stronger.

5. Try Out Your Plans

This is the step that most people fall flat. They want to take action, but they are still attached to their emotional baggage. If this is the case then go back to step one and complete the process and don’t move on until you are ready.

Many people also fail to make strong enough plans that they believe in. They try to get their energy back up, but they can’t because they are still reeling from the first failure. Once again go back to step 1 and don’t move on until you are ready.

When you have created a plan that you can get behind your action should come naturally. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to be motivated.

6. Appreciate Your Passion

The reason you took the failure so hard is because you are passionate. This is a good trait in moderation. But you need to find an emotional middle ground that allows you to keep trying new angles until you succeed.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

– Albert Einstein

You have superpowers within you. You just need to keep linking your creativity to that slightly better idea. Eventually you’ll get the results that you desire.


You’ve heard that the fun is in the journey not in the destination. We all know this, but it’s hard to accept.

The only way to really understand this concept is to take mental notes as you deal with both. I’ve noticed that I’m much happier creating than I am with enjoying the finished project.

This took me a long time to accept, but by accepting this fact I’m much more relaxed when I work on a project. There is no need to rush through, make mistakes, and beat myself up.

What do you do to let go of failed project so you ease your stress and improve your happiness?

* Join the Work Happy Now Facebook Page and interact with other people who are trying to improve their superpowers. It’s very basic right now, but it’s a fun place to visit. We ask good questions, support each other, and laugh. Stop by and hang out.

* Alex the Chief Happiness Officer posted a cool article on how one company keeps track of their employees’ happiness. It’s not as high tech as you may think. Click here to check it out.

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Image courtesy of J. Chris Vaughan

6 thoughts on “How to Deal with a Failed Project”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How to Deal with a Failed Project | Work Happy Now! --

  2. Great post! This is one principle that we all must learn to have any progress in life. I believe if we aren’t failing we aren’t trying hard enough. As long as we use these experiences to learn what we can do better they are important for our development. I like your suggestion about having a plan B or C. If we can prepare for some setbacks they won’t be so devestating. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Joe, When we have back-up plans it makes it so much easier to keep moving forward. We never want to give up on a great idea, but sometimes we need to come at it from a new angle. It’s those small tweaks that keep our motivation high and helps us produce great results.

  4. Hi Karl,

    Great post. Sorry to hear about the triple whammy in one day. Ouch. The immediate triage for me would include a lot of dark chocolate and a long walk!

    There are really two kinds of failed projects, it seems; a failure to get a project or plan launched and a project that was launched but “jinxed” by Murphy’s Law–anything that could go wrong with it did. The first kind are disappointing because we do, either consciously or unconsciously, build a lot of day dreams about how the success of the project is going to shape or change our lives for the better. You’ve given great suggestions for processing the dashed hopes, etc, in these cases.

    For me, the second kind of failure is more challenging to deal with–especially in an employment situation–because it stirs up a lot of self-doubt and discomfort (it’s inconvenienced other people it’s made the department and/or your boss look bad, etc,) and we usually end up with a fair amount of negative feedback from others to confirm or add to a shaken-up level of self-confidence. Your suggestions are also great here. I’d add that we also then need to make sure we “get back on the horse” so to speak and don’t lose our confidence in our abilities.

    As a culture, we’re so obsessed with success and sometimes we’re so convinced that we are in total control of our destiny and the outcomes of our wishes/plans/projects that we blind-side ourselves to the possibility of failure. We also treat failure as a very bad thing and attach a lot of shame and/or punitive responses to mistakes and failures. Failures are great learning experiences, as long as we’re clear about what we’re supposed to be learning–and the lessons shouldn’t be about shaming and blaming. I applaud people who have the courage and integrity to get out there and say “Yes, this project failed miserably. Here’s how I inadvertently contributed to it, and here’s what I did to fix it.

  5. Good points and process.

    One of the sayings we have at work is, “have a fallback position.” We also are expected to intimately manage the risks and issues and have mitigation plans. It’s good project management discipline.

    One thing that helps to bounce back with skill is remembering to focus on what you control and letting the rest go.

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