The Good News About EPIC Fails? They’re the Most Valuable Kind.

You hear the phrase “epic fail” tossed around pretty casually these days. Especially on the internet. Someone splits their pants seam or walks into a plate glass window with a tray of drinks: it’s an EPIC fail. Most of the time, the things we call epic fails aren’t really failures at all. They’re just accidents. And there’s not a whole lot to be learned from them. When I talk about epic fails—I define the term a bit differently. In fact, my definition might surprise you. For me, an epic fail doesn’t have to be epic in scope. It doesn’t have to be witnessed by millions—or even tens—of people. It doesn’t even have to be a blip on anyone else’s radar. For me, an epic failure is one of significant impact that is also profoundly personal.

I’ll define it this way:

An E.P.I.C. fail is Emotional, Personal, Insistent, and ultimately—if you play your cards right-- a Course Corrector. What do I mean by that? Let’s break it down.

Emotional. An E.P.I.C. failure is emotional in that you feel it deeply, every time it comes to mind. I’ve heard that feeling referred to as “the cringe factor.” No matter how far away you get from an E.P.I.C. fail, you can easily call up the feeling of that moment, not to mention where you were standing, what you were wearing, and who was there to bear witness.

 Personal. Why are these failures so emotional? Because they’re personal. It wasn’t “the stars” that failed to align; it was you. You failed to align with the person you know you’re capable of being.

Insistent. Now here’s the twist. An E.P.I.C. failure is never just water under the bridge. You may get over it (and I strongly encourage you to do so), but you’ll never forget it. And that’s because E.P.I.C. failures are also epic teachers. And epic teachers never give up on you. An E.P.I.C. fail will hunt you down and hassle you until you decide to do something about it. And even then, it stays with you, to make sure you never repeat the same mistake twice.

Course Correctors. We dread epic failures, but there’s really no way to avoid them. They’re going to happen, so your best bet is to take what they have to offer: an opportunity to course correct. Because E.P.I.C. failures are so emotional, personal, and insistent, they come charged with a special power that can alter the course of your career for the better.

Early in my career, when I was working for an ad agency, I managed the Frito-Lay account. At the year-end meeting, all of us account leaders had to get up in front of the entire agency—about 500 people—and report on what we’d accomplished. I was terrible. Just a mess. I looked awkward and sounded uncomfortable, punctuating my speech with “ums” and “you knows.” The more nervous I sounded, the more nervous I got, and the more nervous I got, the more nervous I sounded. It was a classic nightmare feedback loop, where the only good news was that I was wearing pants.  I had planned to go into that room and dazzle everyone. I had good results to share. I wanted them to see what an effective job I’d been doing. And due to my lack of experience with public speaking and a wicked case of nerves, I bombed. It was a fail.

Was it emotional? You bet. Was it personal? Completely. The colossal distance between the David at the podium and the David I was in my own mind stung and wouldn’t stop stinging. There was a great public speaker inside of me. I was convinced of that. And this E.P.I.C. failure is what prompted me to draw him out. But not before I developed a powerful fear of presenting. Every time I had to speak to a group, that first presentation came back to haunt me, and I’d panic about becoming that doddering David all over again. It was a clue. It was a voice inside me insisting that this was not the person I wanted to be.  I found a communications coach and practiced, practiced, practiced until confidence and composure came naturally. And without that E.P.I.C. fail I doubt I would have course corrected as deliberately, to become the motivational speaker I am today.

I’ve had a long career, with many successes—and many failures along the way. Failure to make the best decision. Failure to consider what might go wrong. Failure to listen to people who knew better than me. Some of those failures were big, but by my definition, they were not epic. They changed the way I work, but they didn’t necessarily change the course of my career or my life. E.P.I.C. fails are not just a call to action—they’re a call to action in service to your higher self. And that makes them extremely valuable.

 The E.P.I.C. Takeaway

How do you recognize an E.P.I.C. failure and capitalize on its course-correcting potential?

Here’s a quick checklist:

1. Do you feel particularly emotional about the failure—not just a little disappointed, but really knocked sideways? Almost confused about how it could have happened? That’s a cue to look closer.

2. When you think back on the failure, do you find yourself saying things like, “that was so unlike me” or “that’s not who I am?” That means the failure was personal. In other words, it was a failure to be the person you believe you are.

3. Is the failure unforgettable? Highly specific and way too easily relieved? Hassling you to just handle it, already?

 Congratulations. It’s time to course correct.

Now, don’t worry if you don’t heed the call the first time—these failures aren’t afraid to say, hey buddy, remember me? They know you have work to do. And they also know that when you finally do that work, the result is going to be epic. 

 Can you identify an E.P.I.C. fail that’s changed the course of your career? Or maybe there’s one you haven’t addressed yet. I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

February 8, 2022