How do you feel about the F word? Is it a part of your daily vocabulary? Can you hear it without wincing?
Failure. It’s something we all have to face at times – either at work when we fail to close a sale or we are passed over for promotion; in our personal lives when an important relationship ends; or even in our leisure when we lose a sports match, don’t manage to complete that marathon or a diner party doesn’t go as well as we’d hoped.
Some of us seem to bounce back well from setbacks and will quickly land a job in an even better company if we aren’t promoted or be out on a hot date within weeks of a breakup. Others seem to spend ages licking their wounds and find their confidence is severely dented when things don’t go well.
The good news is that the ability to bounce back from failure – resilience – is a skill that can be learnt. It’s actually not as difficult as you might imagine. In fact, it can be as simple as ABCDE.
Failure is an inevitable part of the journey to success. In the words of Truman Capote “failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour”
For some people the mere thought of failure is enough to freeze them in their tracks. These people studiously avoid putting themselves in the position of having to deal with failure. They don’t even apply for promotion or enter that marathon because they are so worried that they may not succeed. The irony of this is that if we are too afraid to try then inevitably we don’t achieve what we want.
Fear of failure is a common cause of procrastination. It’s not uncommon in coaching for a client to say something along the lines of “I’ll do that when I feel more confident”
“Great” I reply “What are you doing to grow that confidence?”
Often the answer is “um – nothing really”.
Waiting around in the hope that confidence will suddenly strike is probably one of the most foolish forms of procrastination. There are many, many things that you are completely confident that you can do – walk, ride a bike, drive a car maybe. The first time you did any of these things you probably weren’t so confident that you could do them. The confidence has come with practice not by putting off the action until you knew you wouldn’t fail.
Occasionally a client is able to list the baby steps that he or she is taking to build up towards the bigger step. Sometimes a client explains how he/ she is developing a plan to reduce the chances of failure – after all fail to plan and you plan to fail. This is great. However it is important to note that it’s virtually impossible to devise a plan that will totally guarantee success. There comes a point when one has to act anyway and accept that, even with the best laid plans, sometimes we fail.
What we say to ourselves when things don’t go well is an important determinant of how quickly we feel ready to try again. Looking for lessons and ways to improve is helpful. Self-flagellation is not!
Notice the language in your head when things don’t go to plan. If you catch yourself thinking things like ‘I’m an idiot’; ‘I’m useless at this’; it’s time to re-think.
People who bounce back quickly are more likely to find external reasons for setbacks than to blame themselves. Whilst they might acknowledge that there are specific things they could do differently next time to improve the chances of success(see below) they certainly don’t tell themselves that they are useless.
Think about what you might say to a child who hadn’t been picked for a sports team. It’s unlikely you’d tell them that it’s because they are useless at sport. Far more likely that you’d find a few external reasons – the other kids are older and bigger; you were tired on the day of the trial because you’d been to a party the night before; perhaps the coach just didn’t notice that great pass you made; we can do a bit more practise after school this week and perhaps you’ll make it next time.
Finding the strength to have another go takes self–belief. You need to believe that ultimately you can succeed. It’s important that your inner dialogue doesn’t undermine this.
Whilst it’s important to avoid beating up on yourself when things don’t go well – it’s equally important to recognise what you can do differently next time.
My all-time favourite coaching question is: ‘what is within your control?’
The child who didn’t make the sports team had no control over the age or size of his competitors but could have gone to bed earlier the night before the trial or practised more.
The key here is to find specific behaviours and actions that can be changed rather than berating yourself over the missed opportunity.
With a trial for a sports team it is likely that there will be a chance to have another go next season. This isn’t the case for all goals – sometimes the opportunity to apply for a particular job overseas or to make a particular relationship work is a one-off.
When these things don’t go to plan it can feel earth-shattering and pretty pointless trying to work out what to do differently next time when it doesn’t feel like there will be a ‘next time’.
However, it is important to remember that the goals we set ourselves are always within our control.
What was important to you about the original goal?
For example was it living overseas that excited you or the challenge of the work? How could you set yourself a new goal that would deliver a similar outcome? Could you set yourself the goal of taking an extended holiday in the country you had hoped to work in for example?
Give yourself some time to take stock. You are in control of the goals you set yourself and the steps you take to get there. What can you change?
Having identified what you can do differently all that remains is to actually do something. Whilst it’s tempting to sit and brood about the failure and to worry about failing again – worrying doesn’t really help. If there’s nothing you can do differently, worrying won’t change anything. If there is something you can do then it’s far better to do it, than to worry.
It’s often particularly difficult to galvanise yourself back into action after a setback. Having the wind knocked out of our sails literally stalls our ship. However, as any sailor knows, sitting still whilst bouncing up and down in choppy waters isn’t particularly pleasant for long – and even if you can catch the smallest breeze it can be enough to get you moving again.
What is the smallest possible step you could take to start moving in the right direction again?
OK – so the aftermath of failure is not really where you wanted to wake up this morning – but what is the flip side?
I mentor local sixth form students who want to go to medical school. One of last year’s cohort failed to secure a place. This felt pretty tough but it means that he has been able to gain some extra experience in care work. He now knows that he can cope with working night shifts – which augurs well for his years as a junior doctor. He also plans to use the opportunity to travel. I’m certain that his application this year will be successful and he will head off to medical school a little older and a little wiser. I’ll wager that in years to come he will have fond memories of his unplanned gap year and it will be an important chapter in the story of how he ultimately became a wonderful doctor.
However bleak the story feels right now every plot has its twists and turns. How can you make this the turning point in your story?
How can you make this failure the next step forward on your road to success?