There are several key elements to “overriding” our negative definitions of failure and viewing our experiences in a positive light.
KEY 1: DEFINE FAILURE OBJECTIVELY. There are times when we do not see the forest for the trees. Let’s say that you have concluded a work assignment you are convinced was an abject failure – nothing good came out of it. You had been asked to lead a pilot project for your group and it was supposed to last six months. At the end of that time, you find that the results were not even close to what was originally envisioned. From your perspective, you failed. From your boss’s perspective, the pilot did exactly what he wanted done – testing a new concept with little money lost, few resources used, and new perspectives on what might be done in the future. While he may be a bit disappointed with the results, he considers the pilot a solid success. He tested your skill sets and was very pleased with your performance. With a change in your perspective, you may begin to see that this experience stretched your professional limits and you learned new skills as the result.
KEY 2: USE FAILURE WISELY. Our first impulse is to want to put failure behind us, to forget the pain and frustration. We put up a barrier, a mental stop sign, in an attempt to dismiss it. Our inclination is to shut that emotionally painful door, rather than to take the next step. We do not ask ourselves to be objective and consider any positives that may have resulted. If we take the next step in the healing process, we might ask ourselves “what was one positive thing that came out of the situation”? What can we do in the future to change the outcome of a failure? When we more closely view the results, we learn to take actions that improve our results the next time something does not work. For example, when you are asked in an employment interview “What is one of your biggest failures and how did you handle it?” you have a number of ways to respond to the question. On one hand, you might talk about something that happened and indicate you will never let it happen again. On the other hand, you can take that same situation and explore the positives you learned to help you on your path to professional maturity. Know that failure can be very painful and it may take some time to view it objectively. Be aware, however, that it is a part of every-day life and learning how to make the results count is critical to your future success.
KEY 3: VIEW FAILURE THANKFULLY. For most of us, this takes practice and a lot of it! Whether this involves a personal or professional experience, our first reaction is typically negative. We usually need a bit to time to ‘lick our wounds’ and wallow in self-pity for a bit. Then, it is time to take the information from Keys 1 and 2 and develop a more objective view. Did we learn things we can use differently in the future? Are we looking at our mistakes and thinking that we are fortunate to have been chosen to make them? We were given an opportunity to do something; we were chosen, not someone else. We took action, rather than sitting in a comfortable chair thinking about doing something. Now, as the result of our actions, we can be stronger and better in our future choices – this is something we can use for the rest of our lives.
I leave you with a personal illustration. When I was a small child, my father taught me how to play cards. He patiently explained the rules of the games we played and helped me to understand what needed to be done and when. There was a maximum score to the game and who ever reached it first won the game. I was very unhappy and pouted when I lost (or failed). He talked to me about the decisions I had made regarding the cards I played or did not play, which might have changed the outcome of the game. At this point, he explained how to lose with grace – how to fail on a positive note. I have never forgotten this lesson. Each time a failure occurs, his words come back to reassure and comfort me as I move forward, one grateful and positive step at a time.