When a work project ends up derailing or a career move goes wrong, it doesn’t pay to endlessly ruminate about it or torture yourself with “should haves.” But you don’t want to totally ignore it either. When we face setback these days, it seems we’re often told by friends, family members, and/or romantic partners to “Just let it go.” And yet if you do that without any consideration of the factors involved, you lose a valuable opportunity to grow—and avoid failure in the future.

The next time a major bump occurs, summon your gutsiness and decide to learn what you can from the experience, even if the truth hurts. 

I call this kind of reflection “doing the rug test.”

When I was the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, newsstand sales were a significant contributor to the bottom line. Though we had a great run during my fourteen years at the helm (we became #1 in single copy sales), I definitely had some dud issues over the years.

I would have loved to put the bad covers behind me without an extra thought, but instead, each time I received a bad report, I forced myself to do an experiment.

I’d start by tossing the current cover (the stinker!) onto the rug in my office. Just above it I’d lay a row of top-selling covers from previous months, and below it I’d put past losers. Then I’d spend about an hour making comparisons. What did the current issue have in common with other failures? What didn’t it have in common with the winners? Was it the cover girl? The outfit she was wearing? The colors? The coverlines? At times I felt like someone on a CSI team, studying a homicide scene in order to determine how and why the victim had been brutally murdered.

And you know what? I almost always ended up with fabulous clues. By the time I was done observing all those issues, I was able to make a good guess as to why the cover hadn’t worked, a factor (unfortunately) I’d been too close to determine before the issue went to press. Maybe the outfit on the actress or model was all wrong for the season. Or the coverlines were too vague and just not compelling enough. Looking backward enabled me to be smarter about how I moved forward.

When a setback occurs in your job or career, try doing your own version of the rug test.  I promise you it will pay off for you in the future.

  • Analyze whatever hard data you can put your hands on. And soft data, too, if it really seems pertinent. And don’t become defensive. Jane Buckingham, CEO of the research and trend spotting company Trendera, says one of the big mistakes she sees clients make is rationalizing away unpleasant findings that research turns up.
  • Spell out what you’re seeing. One of the discoveries that emerged when I studied newsstand failures was that the size of the model’s or actress’s head seemed to affect sales. Turns out Cosmo readers didn’t like pinheads!
  • Take action. Now come up with your plan for the future. For instance, I actually ended up tracing the model and celebrity heads on a bunch of winning covers and created a template for my design director to use so that she always made sure the photo we were using on a cover was blown up to the right size.
  • Accept responsibility, learn, and then let go. I once worked with an executive who always blamed everyone except her own department for any setbacks that occurred in her area. It was always, always someone else’s fault. Suck it up and take responsibility. If you don’t acknowledge your mistakes, you look like a wimp and you lower your chances of learning from them.