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Resilience – Is Failure the Key to Success?
Resilience is becoming a more common theme for individuals seeking to develop and improve, but perhaps achievement is not about persistence and pushing yourself hard, but about starting to enjoy 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 keep growing and improving. This is the whole idea of reflective practice that exists in some career streams, where on a regular basis you are expected to look back, identify key events and analyze them with a view to learning from them.
But there is more to failure than accepting it for the sake of learning. Peter Bregman, in his HBR blog on this topic in November 2009 suggests that we should enjoy ‘trying to achieve something’.
It lists three conditions that must exist in order for you to achieve something. The first two will be accepted across the board I expect, namely wanting to achieve something and believing you can achieve it. If there is no desire and passion to achieve, then what will be your driving force. In fact why are you bothering to target this at all? Second, if the goal is actually impossible, you’re wasting your time. Even if you believe it is impossible again, what will make you give 100% effort to the cause. As I write, the soccer World Cup is showing evidence of teams going a few goals behind and giving up simply because they no longer believe they can win.
The third condition that Bregman gives is that you must enjoy trying to achieve 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 will most likely fail in this attempt, but not letting that put you off.
Of course there is a danger that if we think we won’t succeed, then we give up without trying, or we are so worried about possible failure that our 1 Self completely distracts us from peak performance (see W’s inner work game. Timothy Gallwey). We need to take a Dr Pepper mentality and ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’, then balance that with the positive outcomes of failure and carry on regardless.
Once we start trying, we can get results, and from results comes learning and from learning comes improvement. But this then contradicts the idea that people who just ‘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 revolves around the idea that you’ve set yourself up 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 with gusto, recognize it as a step along the way, and absorb all the lessons you can from it. Get up and give it another go. If you fail a second time, then you begin to see it as a challenge to be overcome, as a game to be played, as a puzzle to be solved, finding the solution that will finally unlock the prize for you .
An example that comes to mind was in the sales and marketing arena. It was something I had never dealt with and believed I couldn’t do. Consequently I left it to a well-practiced colleague. When he had no more time to devote, I had to try. Once I stopped seeing rejections as a personal thing, I started looking at it as a game, to find the key that would unlock the sale, without trying to force it on the prospect. As I continued to persevere, I started to see some development, but I also enjoyed the game. As an unexpected bonus, I also found that I was getting better at talking to strangers, making small talk at parties, and actually taking an interest in people and their lives.
Yes, repetition can get boring if we let it, however without repeated practice we will never become the best at what we do — Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book ‘Outliers’ calculates that it takes 4000 hours of practice at 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 practice, we will not rise to the top.
What does all this mean for us in the world of work?
I think there are two applications, firstly to improve the existing work we have and secondly to help us pursue a new work.
If we want to enjoy our existing work, we must accept that the repetitive practices we are involved in are not just boring and boring, but a challenge for us. How can we improve and become great at them? How many hours will we willingly put into our jobs to become masters? Also, how can we find interest in them and make our work more enjoyable? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Flow’ covers this in some detail.
However, it is the art of the job search to which I think this concept applies most fully. Where else do we experience failures that set us back so easily, that make us think of giving up? What elements of the process can you learn from? Maybe it’s the reaction from the company that set you back. Maybe it’s also the way you felt while writing the documents. Or maybe you’ve identified areas where you’ve skimped and know you should have done better. Was your heart not in it and you know full well that your efforts were substandard? How tailored was your CV to the specific job?
But aside from learning for next time, how do you make a game of pitting your mind against deadly recruiters, playing them at their own games, trying to build a strategy that outsmarts them in order to hire you?
How we react when things go wrong can definitely be the key to our ultimate success. I especially value learning and one of my favorite sayings is “I’ve learned so much from my failures that I’m thinking of having more.” No, I don’t plan to fail, but I am ready to embrace failure if it happens and use it to my advantage to bring about ultimate success.
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