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Resilience – Is Failure the Key to Success?
Resilience is becoming a more common topic for individuals trying to develop and improve but achievement may not be linked to persevering and pushing yourself hard but rather to start enjoying the failures and learn new lessons from them.
Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. If you learn something new from every setback or failure then you continue to grow and improve. This is the whole idea of reflective practice that exists in some career streams, where you are expected to regularly look back, notice the key events and analyze them with a view to learning from them.
But there is more to failure than accepting it in order to learn lessons. Peter Bregman, in his HBR blog on the subject in November 2009 suggests that we should enjoy ‘trying to achieve something’.
It lists three conditions that need to be set in order for you to achieve something. The first two would be generally accepted I expect, wanting to achieve something and believing you can achieve it. If there is no desire and passion to achieve, then what will be your power. Indeed why do you bother to aim for this at all? Second, if the goal is impossible, you’re wasting your time. Even if you only believe it is impossible, then again, what will make you give 100% effort to the cause. As I write, the soccer world cup is showing evidence of teams that go a few goals behind and they give up just because they don’t believe the they can win anymore.
The third condition that Bregman gives is that you need to enjoy trying to reach the goal. This is actually the opposite of achieving something – you have to positively enjoy the failures you encounter along the way. You have to be willing to try something again and again, knowing that you are quite likely to fail at this attempt but not letting that stop you.
There is certainly a danger if we think we won’t succeed then we give up without trying or worry so much about possible failure that our Self 1 distracts us entirely from peak performance (see Inner Game of Work W. Timothy Gallwey). We need to take the Dr Pepper mindset and ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’, then balance that with the positive consequences of failure and carry on anyway.
Once we start trying, we can get results, and from learning results flow and from learning comes improvement. But this then goes against the idea that people who only ‘try’ to achieve are not as successful as those who set out with the knowledge that they will succeed.
So there are some negatives to this idea of embracing failure that have to do with the idea that you set out with the expectation of failure. I don’t believe that’s what Bregman means.
Plan to succeed and then if failure crosses your path, welcome it willingly, recognize it as a step along the way and soak up all the learning you can from it. Get up and try again. If you fail a second time then start seeing it as a challenge to overcome, as a game to play, as a puzzle to solve, finding the answer that will finally unlock the prize for you.
One example that comes to mind was in sales and marketing. It was something I had never tackled and believed I couldn’t do. As a result I left it to a colleague who had practiced well. When he no longer had the time to devote to it, I had to try. After I stopped seeing the rejections as a personal thing, I started to see it as a game, to find the key that would unlock the sale, without trying to force it on the potential client. As I continued to persevere, I started to see some progress, but I also enjoyed the game. As an unexpected bonus, I also realized that I am getting better at talking to strangers, making small talk at parties and actually being interested in people and their lives.
Yes, repetition can get boring if we let it, however without repeated practice we will never be the best at what we do — Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book ‘Outliers’ believes it takes 4000 one hour of practice in something to become a professional, 8000 hours to become a master and 10000 hours to become an artist at the top of your field. Without the habit we will not rise to the top.
But what does all this mean for us in the world of jobs?
I think there are two requests, firstly to improve the current job we have and secondly to help us pursue a new job.
If we want to enjoy our current job we need to recognize that the repetitive routines we engage in are not only dull and boring but a challenge for us. How can we improve and become great at them? How many hours are we willing to dedicate to our jobs to make ourselves a master? But also, how can we find interest in them and make our work more enjoyable? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Flow’ covers this in detail.
However, I think it is the art of looking for work that this concept applies to the most. Where else do we experience failures that set us back so easily, that make us consider giving up? What elements of the process can you learn from them? Maybe it was the feedback from the company that knocked you back. Maybe also how you felt when you wrote the documents. Or maybe you’ve identified areas you overlooked and know you should have done better. Wasn’t your heart in this one and you are well aware that your efforts were substandard? How well was your CV tailored to the specific job?
As well as the learning for next time though, how can you make a game out of it, pitting your wits against the deadly recruiters, playing them at their own games, trying to build a strategy that overcomes them so that hire you?
How we react when things go wrong can definitely be key to our eventual success. I give special rewards to learning and one of my favorite quotes is “I’ve learned so much from my failures that I’m thinking of having more”. No, I don’t intend to fail but I am ready to welcome failure if it happens and use it to my advantage, to ultimately bring success.
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