A Constructive Attitude Toward Failure

A Value Orientation

We had an interesting conversation about “failure” on a Launch call recently. One of the coaches for the program asked if we shouldn’t call a “failure” a “setback” instead. Calling the result a “failure” brought up a lot of old baggage and feelings of discouragement that seemed to get in the way of moving forward.

If identifying a result as a failure discourages you from further action, you need a new attitude toward failure, not a new word for it.

But doesn’t the emotion of discouragement stop you?

Failure can trigger discouragement, and discouragement is a mild form of despair. That means it’s an emotion you experience when it seems that you cannot gain your values. For example, suppose you set a goal to lose 10 pounds by today, and you aren’t there yet. Or maybe you even gained weight in the interim! It would be natural to notice the date on the calendar, think “I failed,” and feel discouraged.

All types of despair are ennervating. Your immediate impulse might be to curl up in a little ball and have a pity party. Or eat a bag of potato chips. You may not even notice that impulse at the time, and that means you could miss your first opportunity to take constructive action. You could gain more pounds before you realize it.

Like many threat-oriented emotions, discouragement and despair can trigger a vicious cycle. But the fact you’ve fallen into a vicious cycle shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your goal! The fact you haven’t lost the weight yet doesn’t mean you can’t lose the weight. Rather, your emotional reaction is part of the data you need to figure out how you will eventually lose the weight.

And eventually, you will notice that you’re lying around feeling sorry for yourself and wonder what to do next. That’s your chance to intervene.

Think of it as a setback, not a final failure

At this point, it is helpful to reframe the failure as a setback. You do not have to give up your goal just because you weren’t successful this time around. Indeed, Brooke Castillo likes to say that you only fail to achieve a goal if you stop pursuing it. Most ambitious goals are difficult enough that you don’t figure out exactly how to achieve them the first time around. It’s common to fail on the first try and even the nth.

Looking at it as a setback brings in a new perspective. A setback involves an unforeseen obstacle. You thought you knew how to lose the weight, but the steps you took didn’t work. There was some obstacle unbeknownst to you that got in the way. Your task now is to figure out what it was and find a solution. How will you work around that unexpected problem?

For example, dieters often discover that parties and vacations pose unforeseen obstacles to losing weight. Maybe you don’t keep sweets in your house to reduce the temptation to eat them. At a party, they’re all around you, and you’ll need more skills to deal with that very real temptation.

Or maybe you found that planning your food in advance helps you lose weight, but when you travel, you simply don’t know exactly where and when you’ll eat. You may need some new skills to help you figure out how to make good food choices on the fly.

When you look at a failure as a setback, it encourages you to look for the new information you got from the failure. That helps you identify the cause of the failure and a new means of achieving your goal.

What if you just failed the same old way?

But sometimes, thinking of a failure as a setback is counterproductive. If you review the setback and see no new information revealed, you are likely to conclude “the plan should have worked!” or “I just didn’t try hard enough!” Then you will be tempted to just try the same approach, unchanged. They say insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

This is the moment when you really need the word “failure.”

Your plan FAILED! This is REAL! This is new information! Your plan is a plan that leads to FAILURE!

Fully accepting this fact, including the implication that your plan has a fatal flaw in it, is critical to your eventual success. You need to see that you must have made a mistake somewhere. That’s what gets you to step back and look for where you made a mistake.

Maybe you made an unwarranted assumption — you thought that going to one meal a day would automatically reduce your calorie count, even if you ate anything you wanted. Or maybe you made an unwarranted prediction — you thought it would be easy to follow your plan, but it was hard.

Some of the information you get when you fail is information about your own knowledge, skills, and motivation. If you don’t take into account this information that you learn about yourself, you will not succeed. You need a new plan that takes into account your current capabilities. You need to work with those capabilities and develop them further in order to succeed.

For example, I read an article recently that implied that people who hate the idea of learning sales and marketing should not become entrepreneurs. That’s not exactly true. What’s true is that people who want to become entrepreneurs do need to learn sales and marketing. It’s part of the job.

Just like everything else, sales and marketing are learnable skills. Even if you hate the idea at first, if you need these skills, you can learn them. It will take some work on your attitude to get started, but as you start learning to market and sell, and start selling successfully, you will develop knowledge that is critical to the success of your startup. At that point, you will also start to value sales and marketing in themselves, not just see them as a necessary means to an end.

Find the humor

Finally, naming something as a failure doesn’t have to bring up discouragement and despair. It can bring up laughter instead. Ask any comedian. Tapping failure to find humor is a standard comedic process. This can even be a good way to heal an old pain.

But you don’t have to go through angst to find the humor in failure. For example, I got my first lesson ever on a drumset a few weeks ago. It was hilarious. I was trying to coordinate two hands and one foot, and I was spectacularly unsuccessful. I could maintain the beat with two appendages at a time, but as soon as I added a third, I became spastic. I was laughing uproariously every time I tried.

Why was it funny? Partly because I didn’t have unrealistic expectations about what I could do. I was just curious about what was involved. I was certain that if I decided to learn to play a drumset, I could learn eventually. Partly it was funny because it was fun to bang away on the cymbal and drums and interesting to see how the sounds went together. So even though I wasn’t doing what I intended to do, I was fully entertained. I also found it intellectually interesting. I was introspecting the whole time about how I was holding a purpose, what impulses I was feeling, and what happened. All of that self-observation is fodder for my intellectual work. So, I got both a recreational payoff from the activity and an intellectual payoff from the activity, even though I wasn’t getting the performance results I intended.

The combination of certainty that you can succeed eventually and in fact getting a payoff as you go is the key. That’s what takes the sting out of failure. The failure is not metaphysically significant in such a case; humor is a reaction toward something that appeared serious but that doesn’t matter.

A failure is only significant if one of these is true:

  • You think the failure means that this goal is impossible per se, and you don’t want to live in a world like that. (The world is not open to your success.)
  • You think the failure means that there is something about you that indicates it is not possible for you to succeed at this goal, ever. (You are inherently inefficacious.)
  • You think the failure means your time and effort were wasted. (This bit of your life was meaningless.)

Fortunately, with a value-oriented approach to goal-setting, you inoculate yourself against these painful conclusions. (And at a deep level, they are all false. But that’s another story. Thinking Labbers, see the Rational Goal-Setting course for more on the practical details.)

When you have a benevolent, self-confident attitude toward failure, it’s easy to make jokes about what happened. “Gee, I thought I could lose that extra five pounds in the last two weeks, but somehow eating an entire cheesecake got in the way. Who woulda thunk it?”

Failure is not funny per se, but one’s own foibles are absolutely worth joking about. And seeing that failure is not metaphysically significant is one way you ensure you break out of a vicious cycle and start up a virtuous cycle that will eventually result in total success.

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