“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
— Michael Jordan
Failure hurts. Rejection hurts. Not getting picked hurts. Losing the big game or competition doesn’t feel good either. We’ve all been there and we all know how it feels. But for some folks, the pain goes beyond that distressed feeling we experience when we exclaim, “This SUCKS!!”. For these people, failure and rejection are excruciating and can be hard to endure. Regardless of how difficult the experience is, there are ways to use failure and rejection to your benefit. The keys are learning, resiliency, and determination.
The basic idea is that we want to change the experience from a horrible defeat into a pesky setback that is full of lessons.
Learning from failure
The distressing experience of failure: Emotions and Thoughts
Failure and rejection are words that send a chill down most peoples’ spines. All too often because we identify our self-worth with the presence or absence of those words in our lives. In reality, those words simply describe the results of effort and risk. Both imply a degree of courage and willingness to try. It’s tragic that evidence of courage and effort should lead people to identify themselves as failures or rejects. So why does this happen? And more important, how do we convert failure and rejection into motivation?
Disappointment – Of course disappointment is normal when we fail. When we have high hopes for something and things don’t go as we wanted, feeling a bit out of sorts makes perfect sense.
Sadness and despair – When disappointment is more intense, we may feel sad about our results. And in more extreme cases, we even feel despair, as if things will never work out the way we want.
Anger and frustration – Some people may skip over sadness and despair and go straight to anger and frustration. These are also perfectly normal experiences, especially as you make more efforts. Imagine Edison on that 995th attempt at inventing a working lightbulb! We might feel like the universe is conspiring against us, or that people on our team just cannot seem to find the right information. (It is said that Edison got the working light bulb on the 1000th try).
Anxiety – When we move through repeated failures, anxiety is a common experience. Like anger and frustration, anxiety provides the discomfort that motivates us to change.
Self-loathing and self-pity – “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure this out? I must just suck at this.” Some people take their failures to heart as if their courage in trying does not matter. Depression and anxiety are common when people engage in this kind of thinking.
Blame – Assigning blame to others seems to protect us from taking responsibility. But when we blame others, we still blame ourselves and experience the self-loathing.
Regret – “I knew I should/shouldn’t have done this or that.” This is the mantra of regret. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Turning it into regret can slow us down from using the information we learned from the failure.
Vengeance – Usually connected to blame. Vengeance is a desire to sabotage other people’s work out of anger at the failure of your own project.
The fantasy of better outcomes – Who hasn’t lost a game or blundered a first date, then considered what they would’ve done differently? This is a great place to begin looking for lessons to improve.
Assumption of disappointment from others (ie letting people down) – You’re on your way to your program manager’s office and thinking about how they will criticize you. This is an Automatic Negative Thought (ANT). They set us up to be defensive before we give them a chance to offer us encouragement and other ideas.
Resiliency: Bouncing back from failure
How to manage the distressing thoughts and emotions
Feel the emotions – All feelings are trying to help you, even the unpleasant ones. Pain wants relief. Fear wants safety. Confusion wants clarity. Allowing yourself to feel your emotions is an exercise in mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you know what you need and how to get it.
Name them – When you name your emotions, they become clear, and this helps you find what the discomfort is asking for. Naming things helps cut through the clutter of judgment.
Examine them – Being curious helps you keep an open mind. Receptivity like this helps you see ideas that you might otherwise miss. Creativity is often an essential element of effectively examining feelings for lessons.
Learn from them – This is what brings everything full circle. When you learn from failures, you are less likely to fail again. Sure, sometimes it takes many failures to learn your way around (remember Edison’s 1000 attempts at the lightbulb?). You’ll find a sense of accomplishment when you decide to learn from failure
Integrate the lessons – I need to split a hair here between the definition of Information Acquisition and Learning:
Information Acquisition is simply taking in information. That simple.
Learning is the integration of that information into successful behavior change. So, what we are going for is learning (integration of your results).
How to reframe your experience
Were there successful parts? There are usually helpful components in failure or rejection that can help us learn. Looking at these successes gives you a boost to get through the disappointment. You also begin to assemble a template for your next attempt at success.
Interesting or fun parts? Quite often, people who lose a game still report having a great time during the game. When you are open to having fun in a process that might result in failure, you at least have a better time of it! This optimistic mindset makes it much easier to learn for future projects.
Did you learn anything that will help you next time?
What to do – Review the steps above about successful parts and interesting/fun parts. Apply the lessons from those as a good starting point for your next attempt.
What NOT to do – Here’s where failure and rejection are fertile ground for learning. When you examine the successes in the failure, you learn part of your next approach. Another part of this approach is knowing what NOT to do. For example, if telling off-color jokes when you first meet somebody does not seem to work well, then you’ll know to not do that again. Look for obvious signs that might give you a signal of something going awry. When dealing with people, you might notice a stiffening up, or a look of discomfort on the other person’s face. That being said, sometimes in social situations, it’s just that they are nervous, too. Taking time to ask colleagues and friends for their take helps you triangulate the information to use.
Competition with self to master failure
While most of us don’t exactly look forward to failure or rejection, we can look forward to the challenge. As we experience failure, we become more accustomed to it. This means that it’s only a mild annoyance instead of an earth-shattering blow to our confidence.
Determination and integrating lessons to create success from failure
What’s the lesson you found? Maybe you’ve learned to calm your breath before a presentation, or that following directions is better than making assumptions. In any event, there are always lessons to be learned in failures. Look for traits that people did not seem to respond well to or specific behaviors that did get the results you were looking for. Let’s say you keep telling offensive jokes on first dates and you keep getting rejected. You would do well to learn that the first date is often not the time for those bawdy jokes. When something doesn’t work, what is the failure pointing to?
Learn from your mistakes rather than making excuses for them.
If you decide that all your dates are uptight, then you are shifting the focus onto them and not learning about yourself. Sure, what you may learn is that an ideal match is somebody that enjoys off-color jokes right off the bat! And that’s just fine, but you may want to adjust your online dating profile to match that little detail. In that case, there’s the lesson.
Cultivate a Champion mindset
If you didn’t see the Michael Jordan quote at the top of this post, scroll back up there and read it. I’ll wait . . . Michal Jordan has a champion mindset. Michael Phelps has a champion mindset. The list is very long, and most of them will tell you that learning to fail is one of the most important parts of the champion mindset. Examining mistakes and failure for lessons is an important part of building success. Finally, determination to never give up…always keep learning. That’s the secret that is really not so secret anymore.
Learn more about Counseling in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.