1. I can learn from my failure.
Imagine this: you focused on making a profit, and a year later you lost all your money. Isn’t it a failure?
In the business world, there is a story, perhaps made up, about a young executive who is given a project by the president of a company. A year later, the project was curtailed, although millions were spent on it. The President called the young leader to his place.
He was worried: “Will I lose my job? I have failed in this responsible business. The boss will think I’m a loser.” However, the president said, “Mark, I have a new project for you. In fact, it is even more solid than the previous one.”
Mark breathed a sigh of relief, but was a little embarrassed and replied to the president, “I am very happy to receive this new project. But to be honest, I expected you to fire me after I failed on the last project.” “Fire you? Hell, I won’t kill you after spending those millions on your education!”
Most of all, the chief was interested in training. What did Bill find out? How can he apply the acquired knowledge in a new project?
Watch the girl assembling the puzzle. She’s trying to put together pieces that don’t fit together. Is she failing or learning? While solving a crossword puzzle, you discover that the word you wrote doesn’t fit. Did you fail or did you learn something? What have you learned and how can you use it now?
Failure has the connotation of finality: “It’s over. You have failed.” But learning gives perspective and empowers.
There is an even more effective way to use “failure”: learn from other people’s failures. When businessmen consider a marketing plan, the first thing they look at is what strategies someone has succeeded with and how someone has failed.
My friend was planning to open his own private practice. He spoke to both very successful practitioners and not so successful practitioners. He wanted to know what worked and what didn’t.
Failure is information. A failed behavior model gives you more information than before about what you can and shouldn’t do if you want to achieve a specific goal.
Children and adults who persist use failure as a learning experience to move towards potentially more effective behaviors.
But we are often ashamed of our failures and do not want to consider them again. We reduce failure to a gloomy event that contains nothing of value in itself. I would prefer that when you study your failures, you ask yourself what important lessons can be learned from them.
2. My failure can challenge me.
Another way to respond to disappointment is to view it as a challenge. Carol Dweck, who studies children’s motivation, tapes what toddlers say to themselves when they fail at a task.
She studied two different groups: children who give up when they fail (helpless), and children who stick to their minds or correct them when they fail (persistent).
The helpless say, “I can’t do this thing. I don’t get anything at all. I can give up.” Persistent, on the contrary, say: “Wow, this is great. I love challenges! When children see failure as a challenge, they become active and try harder. They reflect on their “failure” in terms of what they can learn. <…>
Like children who face failure, you can choose how to respond to failure: give up what you think is too difficult, find motivation to try harder.
Psychologists refer to competence motivation or performance motivation to indicate how often overcoming obstacles that slow down the completion of a task additionally motivates us.
Persistence in solving a particular problem can increase our ability to deal with other challenges. This phenomenon is known as learned hard work.
According to Eisenberger’s theory, people differ in how they make efforts to resist failure and use self-discipline (instead of focusing only on immediate gain). If your actions are backed up only by results (success or failure), then failure can bring you down.
In comparison, if you are process-oriented, you will be incredibly resilient even in the face of failure. Studies by psychologists Quinn, Brandon, and Copeland have shown that people with higher levels of learned work ethic are less likely to turn to smoking or substance abuse to cope with frustrations.
The experience of failure is an opportunity to feel challenged and to develop learned industriousness, the ability to overcome the setbacks and disappointments that are inevitable in life.
3. It wasn’t important to success.
When you worry, you look at the situation narrowly, you focus on one goal to the exclusion of all others, and, naturally, consider this goal of yours important. I believe that nature is wise: what is really necessary cannot be canceled at your will or will.
Blood must circulate throughout the body, a person needs to breathe and digest food. If you don’t, you will die. This is so important that you do it automatically.
Getting good grades, earning a lot, or meeting the man or woman of your dreams right now is not a life necessity.
Wally is worried that he could be fired any minute. We studied his situation, and it turned out that there is a certain probability of such an outcome. I told him a story I had heard from psychiatrist Isaac Marx about a patient who was constantly worried about getting a STD.
After many months of therapy (which did nothing to change the patient’s obsessions), he did catch syphilis. To his surprise, he felt relieved: he learned that the disease was treatable and took part in group therapy for people with sexually transmitted diseases.
Wally and I explored opportunities that would be available to him after he was fired, such as private consulting. Wally called me the following week: “Bob, guess what? I have syphilis!” I asked him what he meant. “This is very similar to what you said: I was fired and I decided to start my own consulting. I used some contacts and got clients. A huge stone fell from my shoulders.” Work in a particular company was not at all vital.
Almost every goal that you have tried to achieve or even achieved is not a vital necessity.
If so, you don’t have to suffer so much. Getting into a certain school, passing a certain exam, having an affair with this woman or this man, showing up to a meeting on time, being able to look your best—these are goals that you have considered necessary at various points in your life. Now you can ask yourself, “How different would my life be if I didn’t achieve some of them?”
4. There are some behaviors that didn’t pan out.
If you fail to reach your goal, you may conclude that all your actions in this situation were unsuccessful. Does it make sense? Imagine that you worked for a whole year and you were fired. Would you come to the conclusion that everything you did in the service was a complete failure?
Steve had been working for a rather shady company for about a year when the firm’s financial problems led to him being fired. He began to criticize himself and plunged into depression, labeling himself as a loser. I asked him to write a detailed job description for the previous year and then rate everything he did at work on a scale of 1 to 5.
After examining the evidence, he realized that he was very successful in almost every aspect of his activities. We examined in detail what new skills, knowledge and contacts he acquired. As a result, Steve realized that now he is much more experienced than he was a year earlier.
I assumed that he had received an excellent education and received some benefit in the form of a salary. Steve liked this idea. A month later, he went to an interview, where he was offered a position for which he accepted. Previous experience proved to be an important criterion for a new employer.
We often believe that if we do not achieve our goal, none of our efforts will pay off and all the work invested will be a waste of time.
For example, you may worry that your relationship won’t last forever—and it probably won’t. But was everything that happened to you a waste of time if your relationship ended? Between 50 and 70% of marriages end in divorce. To think that a relationship that didn’t last forever was a failure would mean that almost everyone around you is a failure.
The all-or-nothing perception of relationships is completely illogical: there were many pleasant and meaningful moments in them, even if they ended.
End results can be mixed. But looking at life solely in terms of evaluation (and only an ideal one) can lead you to begin to underestimate your own experience.
If you follow this logic, anything that doesn’t last until your last day is a waste of time.
5. Everyone fails at something
One of the consequences of failure is a feeling of loneliness in trouble. You begin to feel that you are the only one unlucky in life. Failure becomes something personal, and not peculiar to people in general. You can decide that your failure is unique, that you are qualitatively different from others for the worse, feel like a kind of hole in humanity, which, of course, consists of people who are incredibly successful in any business.
Sharon felt devastated by her recent setback at work. She was ashamed that others would find out about her failure and not want to do business with her. I asked her to list five people she knew well and admired. I then asked her to tell me if any of them had any problems or setbacks. I pretended to be one of her friends who failed at everything, and during the role play I asked her to talk to me about my feelings about it.
After the role play, Sharon said that when people shared unpleasant experiences with her, she respected them more and felt closer to them. This proved two things to her:
- Everyone fails, even the people she admires.
- Telling a failure to a good friend can help you bond (in fact, talking about success can turn some people off).
When Fred was in college, he got a C for his work in economics. This work proposed a private 24-hour mail service that would compete with the post office. The professor thought it was unrealistic and stupid. Two years after graduating from college, Fred Smith founded Federal Express.
Henry Ford’s first company went bankrupt, and the founders of Standard Oil searched unsuccessfully for oil for many years until they finally found it.
Successful people build their success on their own failures. Everyone falls when learning to walk, everyone loses at tennis, every stock investor has lost money – the more wins, the more losses.
Our culture places too much emphasis on success and not enough emphasis on endurance, perseverance, resilience, and humility.
Failure is okay. It’s part of a relationship, a job, exercising, investing, or even caring for someone.
If we can prove to ourselves that failure is normal, that with it comes experience, we will worry less and see it as part of the life process, the price of getting involved.
6. Perhaps no one noticed
We often worry that everyone notices our failures, discusses them, remembers and constantly judges us. Consider how egocentric this fantasy is. Do other people have nothing else to do but sit and discuss our problems?
We are afraid that our failure will seem so terrible to other people that they will begin to think about it.
I went to a psychology conference with my graduate students and we made presentations. There were probably a hundred people in the audience. Teri, who was presenting her first talk, told me that she was worried that everyone in the audience would notice how nervous she was.
She was worried that someone would ask a question she couldn’t answer and she would look like a fool. I asked her how anyone could notice that she was worried about what he would see or hear? She was afraid that her voice would betray her or that the audience would notice how her hands were trembling.
I asked Teri how many speakers she heard at the conference. There were about 15 of them. And what did she remember about their anxiety? Nothing. Interesting: no one noticed that most of the speakers were worried, although it would be fair.
Maybe people don’t notice—or don’t remember—mistakes, problems, or failures.
Or let’s take Don as an example, a TV presenter who was sure that people saw how he was nervous and making mistakes on the air. I asked him how the viewer would be able to identify his anxiety. He realized that his judgments are based on his own subjective experiences. He felt uneasy and, of course, he was always aware of his own unease. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that all viewers have the same information at their disposal.
He suffered from a disorder called transparency illusion and thought that everyone could determine his condition. I suggested that Don look at the tapes of him and see if he could tell when he felt anxious and what signs of anxiety were visible. He couldn’t see anything, especially on the small TV screen.
7. Failure means I tried. Don’t try worse
We have already discussed the idea of learned hard work, that is, pride in the effort put into achieving a goal. People with a learned work ethic are not just results-oriented and are less likely to separate experience into success and failure. They are less depressed, less anxious, and less likely to rely on various substances (such as alcohol and drugs) to manage their emotions.
Carol complained of a lack of enjoyment in life, depression and hopelessness. I asked her to keep track of what she did every hour of the week and rate each activity in terms of enjoyment and skill (how efficient or competent she was).
When she showed her schedule of activities, we noticed that almost all the time she was thinking about her depression. She felt better when she was with her husband or with friends, but she had spent much less time with them since she slipped into depression.
I suggested that she start more joint ventures with other people and some independent interests. She was fond of photography, so she started taking pictures. At first she didn’t think her work would be good (a pretty typical negative filter for a depressed person).
But just trying to do something, putting in some effort, she already felt a little better. She said, “You know, the very feeling that I tried is a relief.” I explained my rule of thumb:
The environment is a natural reinforcer for positive behavior.
In other words, there were people and activities around Carol that could support her efforts. The more Carol tried, the better she felt. It also increased her control over her own mood, as it became clear to her that her mood depends on the behaviors she uses.
Eventually her depression disappeared. Carol moved from evaluating results to learned hard work—the ability to see pride in the effort itself.
8. I just started
Imagine that you are 33 years old. I ask you to look back at all the complex skills you have acquired in life. It could be related to sports, learning a language, or learning something new. Have you encountered any “failures” and “disappointments” along the way?
There must have been many times when you felt frustrated and even ready to give up, but still persisted. You may think that if something doesn’t work now, then it’s over. I see it as “you’ve just started”.
When I was in college, my friend Larry and I went to the gym to lose weight. Every week, another young man in poor physical shape came to the gym. Throughout the workout, he lifted huge weights to the limit of his capabilities. I told Larry, “Well, we won’t see him again. He will return home in such terrible pain that he will never want to come here again.” You could bet.
The activities of these athletes remained within the framework of the New Year’s resolution: “This year I am going to get in shape and I will start doing it right now. I’ll take care of it properly.” Like all New Year’s resolutions, this will fail.
The reason is that the best way to establish a new pattern of behavior is to form it in the process, gradually increasing the frequency and intensity of certain actions.
If you want to get into running, you should probably start with brisk walking for 5 minutes, then gradually build up the pace and jog for the next couple of months. You need to get your body or behavior in shape. By starting right away with heavy loads, you can give the one-day illusion that you are determined about your new program. But this is practically a guarantee that in the near future you will refuse it.
Only consistency leads to success.
Look at your behavior as part of a long process of evolution, self-modification, change. If you were expecting immediate results but aren’t getting them, you may be telling yourself that you’ve just started. You still have something to look forward to.
Robert Leahy’s The Cure for Nerves. How to stop worrying and enjoy life” will help curb anxiety and shift the focus from failure to opportunity.