Failure: friend or foe?

Jan 21, 2021

What do you do in the face of failure? Some people like to curl themselves in bed and stay in a dark place. I’ve been there. It’s ugly and uncomfortable. It can lead to shameful thoughts and feeling crappy. But today I want to share a different perspective with you:

Failure is what you make of it!

You may have heard of growth mindset. Carol Dweck is known for her work on the mindset traits. She described two types of mindset. Fixed mindset is the term to describe people that believe that there is a cap to their talents and intelligence. Growth mindset on the other hand is the belief that people have that intelligence and skills can be cultivated. The type of mindset a person has will determine the outcomes they can achieve.

Typically a person with fix mindset, when confronted with challenging situations – a difficult math problem for example, will try to shy away from the possibility of failure. “Trying to save face” you may have herd…and it makes sense, if you don’t think you can do it because you “were born not born to do math”, then likely that will be the case. In the opposite side, if you believe you can learn, even if you haven’t had much math education…with practice and effort, and a good mentor, likely you can learn and grow, and even resolve hard math problems you did not think you could before.

A fundamental difference between fix and growth mindset is the attitude in front of failure. Your belief about failure is what will make it a horrible experience, or a stepping stone for growth.

The CEO of Honda motors, Soichiro Honda once said: “success is 99% failure”. Often times is not the talented person the one that ends up succeeding, but the person that decided that despite their lack of expertise they would keep trying, and trying, and trying…until they mastered something that once was totally foreign to them to the point they were initially consider “failures”.

We all make mistakes, we are NOT the mistakes.

I read this quote in George Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete. This message is huge! An error does not define you. What defines you is what you believe about it. There is no perfect human being. If you consider an error an intrinsic part of you, than it is more likely that you will beat up on yourself…because to be honest, you will continue to make mistakes.

Some people relate to failure as if it was a reflection of them

There is a simple trick to help you here, it’s called error correction. And although simple, is not necessarily easy to implement. But hear me out. When you make a mistake the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of your Inner Critic. We all have this little voice in the back of our heads…how strong it is depends on how close attention you pay to it. This usually leads to self-blame: “I’m not good enough”, “I can’t play this sport”, “I was not born to do math”, “it’s all my fault”, “I’m not smart enough”. The trick here becomes in reframing the meaning of the mistake and going from self-blame mode into self- reflection. Let me give you an example: I gave a public speech presentation (this happened a few months ago) and got mostly negative feedback because it had too many technical terms and I spoke soft and fast, among other things. The first reaction I had was to beat up on myself and take it personal. “I am not a public speaking person, I should just give up”, “this is not the thing for me”, “I’ll never feel comfortable in front of a big room”. It took my family and friend’s encouragement and serious time for reflection to start considering my foreseen failure as a stepping stone for growth. But when I was finally able to see it as feedback, than it open the opportunity for fine-tuning the skills I needed to become a better public speaker.

Recognizing failure as feedback for growth is the key here.

Errors are opportunities.

Mistakes become challenges to learn how to walk out of your comfort zone, and most importantly how to control your response to challenges.

It takes courage to silence the inner critic. Once you start practicing self-reflection you will learn to delay the inner critic voice from taking over your thoughts. As the old proverb says – As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. You don’t necessarily have control over errors or mistakes, but you do have control over the attitude you have in the face of failure. In the end… you can learn to consider failure your friend!

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