Many people end up despondent when they experience failure. They cannot deal with the consequences, with the feelings of inadequacy. But failure does not have to be such a horrible event. You can change how you react to failure. You can change your perception of it. Failure is nothing to fear when you recognize that even failure is better than doing nothing at all and that you can embrace failure as an opportunity for learning and change.
Failure is Success of Action
The very act of failing is better than nothing. Failure is a success of action. You tried, which is more than many people can say. You got off the couch. You did your best. (You did do your best didn’t you?)
The first step in achieving any goal, in attaining any success, is simply to start. Don’t sit around imagining the success you want to have. Don’t daydream about the accolades, the praise you might get. Your fantasies are nothing without the work you put in to achieve them.
Don’t wallow in your past failures. Set your goals and figure out what steps you need to take in the present in order to achieve them. Break down your goals into achievable steps. No task is as daunting when broken into parts.
No realistic person takes up the guitar expecting to immediately become the next Jimi Hendrix. They have to take it step by step, learning the basic chords and basic songs for years before attempting something new and creative. No person is immediately successful. Einstein worked in a patent office before coming up with his world-changing theories. Mark Zuckerberg had failed websites before Facebook. Jimi Hendrix worked as a backup musician.
Failure is an Opportunity for Learning
Remember, all your anxieties exist only in your own perception of external events. This is not a new idea, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius noted 18 centuries years ago that “Disturbance comes only from within–from our own perceptions.” When faced with failure and disturbance, Aurelius told himself, “it’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it–not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone.” He controlled how he thought about adversity instead of succumbing to despair.
Modern psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi expand upon this idea. Csikszentmihalyi writes that “of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.”
Recognize what you control and what you do not. In moments of disappointment, failure, and frustration, ask yourself two questions, “was the failure my fault?” and, “what can I change to avoid the same problem in the future?”
Imagine a situation in which you are late to an important job interview because of a traffic accident ahead of you. It might cost you the job, but this failure was not entirely your fault. It was not entirely in your control. It is not helpful to be angry or distressed about the event, but you can learn from the event, and decide to change your scheduling in the future, allowing more time to get to future interviews.
Strive to do your best in the situation you’re in at this present moment. Don’t long for past successes and happiness, and don’t get lost in your fantasies for the future. Set stepping-stone challenges for yourself, each one bringing you closer to an overall goal. Remember that you will fail, and fail again. And when you do, remind yourself that it’s a moment to learn and get better, and then try again.
Success takes work. You must do your best with the circumstances given, and accept that most of the world is out of your control. Accept what you don’t control and do your best to work at what you do. Doing your best is all you can do. No one can realistically ask more of themselves.
Failure is an Opportunity for Change
Failure can be a moment of great opportunity. Use moments of failure not just for learning, but to reassess the situation, to question your current course. Try to keep an open stance, alert for new information and opportunities.
If you are fired, perhaps this is a moment to move into a different career. If you have a problem without a solution in sight, even after multiple attempts, step back and question whether that problem is even what you should be working on. Think further back in the chain of decisions that got you to this point. Was there a moment where you could’ve done something different, something that you now know is the better choice?
Take the opportunity of failure to reassess your goals. Were your goals reasonable? Was what you experienced really a failure, or was it only a failure only in your own perception?
For instance, many new university graduates consider it a failure if they cannot immediately find work in their chosen field. However, if they stepped back and looked around they might realize that their initial goal to immediately attain a position in their field was unrealistic. To be employed at all might be successful enough, for the moment anyway.
Set your goals just beyond what you can currently manage and then improve your skills to get there. When you succeed, add new goals. When you fail, step back and reassess. Learn from your mistakes and try again from a new angle. To fail means that you tried, which is respectable in and of itself. If you do your best then even failure is a success in action, and if you use it to learn you can make failure an opportunity, a step towards success.
by Stewart Konrad
Reference: Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Gregory Hays. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.
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