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11 – Attitude to Failure

In our current society, we are always encouraged to set goals, set milestones, set KPI’s, in other words, define over and over again what success looks like.  But we are less comfortable with recognising that every time we don’t hit those goals or milestones or KPI’s we are failing.  We’re very good at having conversations about success. We’re very poor at dealing with the implications of failure.

Learned hopelessness

Your attitude to failure is crucial to your capacity for success.  There is a huge difference between learned optimism and learned hopelessness.  If you’ve ended up in a situation that you’ve given up trying because you assume the inevitability of failure, then you are in a place of learned hopelessness.  Stepping out of that is a long and hard road.  You need to be prepared to take small steps that, even though they may fail, you can afford the emotional cost of a small failure.  When you make a small success, you can celebrate that success and rebuild hope.

Failing big

But for many of us it’s not the little failures that we most struggle with it’s the big failures.  Whether it’s the failure of your marriage, redundancy, failure to get the promotion, failure of some artistic endeavour, failure to get the next job or failure to win the next client.  

Whatever the failure is that you experience, you can look at it through 3 very powerful lenses: 

1.  Was this actually a complete failure?

Have you defined success in such a way that success and failure were absolutely one or the other: completely binary?  Often failure is better characterised as limited success.  Maybe you didn’t get quite as big a pay rise as you hoped for.  Maybe the thing that you were hoping to deliver wasn’t quite as good as it could have been.  Maybe other people didn’t think it was as good as you’d liked.  They are things which are ‘less than’, rather than ‘not at all’. Reframing those things as ‘less than’ rather than ‘not at all’ means that you can provide a critical view of that ‘less than’ rather than categorising it with this damning word of failure.  

2.  What was in your control and what was outside your control?

If your marriage comes to an end, then listen to language here.  Your marriage has failed.  Have I failed, or did they fail, or did we fail?  Interesting, when we talk about marriage failure we step away from direct responsibility for this.  Sadly, that means often in divorce proceedings it becomes a blame game.  But a more useful way of looking at that is to examine what was in your control and what was outside your control.  In a relationship you cannot ultimately control the other person, but you can control yourself.  I think this is a useful perspective to look on any kind of failure.  What was inside your control and what was outside your control.  Too often in a corporate environment we are just expected to succeed whatever the circumstances.  This is unrealistic and unreasonable.  Being tagged with failure when you had no influence on the circumstances is not helpful.  

3.  A learning experience 

The third lens with which you can look at failure is by reframing it as a learning experience.  If you see every step forward as being a step, as being a process of learning something new, then even if you don’t get the outcome you are hoping for, you still have an opportunity for a learning opportunity.  Now you start to reframe your activities and your life in terms of the quality of the process, rather than being fixated with the outcome.  This is one of the hallmarks of a ‘growth mindset’ first identified by Dr. Carol Dweck.  Her research shows that a growth mindset is a key factor in ultimate success.  If you see that process as an opportunity for learning, growth and development, then when things don’t happen as you expect, you can learn and develop rather than dwell in the disappointment of failure. 

Failure as loss

There’s one other attitude to failure that I think it’s important to recognise.  Every failure is a kind of loss.  We had something and we lost it.  Whether it was opportunity, a hope, a dream, an outcome or something we relied on, we have lost it.  These losses can be very very significant to us.  Maybe you worked for the same firm since you left university – 30 years in you are fired or made redundant.  It’s easily seen as failure and it certainly constitutes a huge personal loss.  Perhaps you have been married for 15 years and you are facing the decree absolute for your divorce.  Your marriage certainly didn’t succeed and how ever grateful you may be that the pain of divorce has concluded, there can be significant personal (and financial) loss.  A crucial response to this kind of failure is one of mourning.  We are not good at talking about death or comforting those who are bereaved.  Similarly, we have lost the emotional tools to lament and engage with the pain of loss.  People often refer to the 5 stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross but this was observed in individuals with a terminal diagnosis not in the bereaved.  Perhaps it is more useful to use the  four tasks of mourning identified by J. William Worden, TEAR.

  • T – To accept the reality of the loss
  • E – Experience the pain of the loss
  • A – Adjust to the new environment without whatever was lost
  • R – Reinvest in the new reality after the loss

Conclusion 

Your attitude to failure will be context sensitive.  However you may reframe the failure – a less than ideal outcome, a learning experience, accepting what’s your responsibility and what’s not your responsibility – you will still be left with a sense of loss.  If the loss really matters to you, then take the time to mourn your loss before you reinvest in the new reality.

Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.