Coping with failure

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By-Dr John Parankimalil, PhD

Failure is simply defined as the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective and may be viewed as the opposite of success. Failure occurs every day, in school, jobs, housework, and within families. It is unavoidable, irritating and causes pessimism.

Failure is inevitable if we are to succeed in life. Unfortunately, many people do not know how to overcome failure, and they are stopped by it when they encounter one. The ability to overcome failure is one big difference between successful and mediocre people. After all, we should pass failure on the way to success, so it is the ability to pass it that makes the difference between those who eventually reach success and those who don’t.

Failure can be differentially perceived from the viewpoints of the evaluators. A person who is only interested in the final outcome of an activity would consider it to be an outcome failure if the core issue has not been resolved or a core need is not met. A failure can also be a process failure whereby although the activity is completed successfully, a person may still feel dissatisfied if the underlying process is perceived to be below expected standard or benchmark. There is the failure to anticipate, the failure to perceive or the failure to carry out a task’

Nothing bites us more hurtfully than failure. Especially in case of people with poor self-esteem and low self-confidence, the pain and fear associated with failure is more serious, damaging and debilitating. Failure prevents many unfortunate victims from being true to their potential and realizing their cherished dreams. Concerned as we are with success and survival, living in a competitive world that worships winners and castigates losers, even people with normal self esteem tend to react to failure with a negative frame of mind and attitude, and with feelings of inadequacy, incompetence and loss of self-esteem.

During a Harvard commencement speech, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling outlined the importance and value of failure. Why? Simply because she was once a failure too. A few short years after her graduation from college, her worst nightmares were realized. In her words, “I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” Coming out of this failure stronger and more determined was the key to her success.

Have you seen that great Nike advertisement where Michael Jordan is walking in slow motion toward the locker room with his voice in the background? He is saying, “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.”

It would be an easy misconception that Jordan’s basketball skills revolve around natural talent. In fact, in his earlier years, basketball coaches had trouble looking past the fact that Jordan didn’t reach the minimum height. It was years of effort, practice, and failure that made the star we know today. Michael Jordan, possibly the greatest basketball player ever to play the game, acknowledges that his failures helped him succeed. Far too many believers believe that our failures doom us. But the reality is that our failures are neither fatal nor final.

Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney dropped out of school at a young age in a failed attempt at joining the army. One of his earlier ventures, Laugh-o-Gram Studios, went bankrupt due to his lack of ability to run a successful business. He was once fired from a Missouri newspaper for “not being creative enough.” Yet today, the genius behind Disney studios is responsible for generations of childhood memories and dreams. From Snow White to Frozen, Disney will continue to entertain the world for generations to come. Walt Disney himself said, “We don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, Steven Spielberg is a familiar household name. It is surprising to realize therefore that the genius behind Jaws and E.T. had poor grades in high school, getting him rejected from the University of Southern California three times. While he was in college, he caught the eye of executives at Universal, who signed him as a television director in 1969. This meant that he would not finish his college degree for another 33 years. Steven Spielberg says, “Even though I get older, what I do never gets old, and that’s what I think keeps me hungry.” Perseverance and acceptance of failure is the key to success.

During his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh suffered mental illness, failed relationships, and committed suicide at the age of 37.  He sold only one painting in his life, pinning him a failure as an artist. However that did not put a damper on his enthusiasm and passion for art. He would never know that years and years after his death he would become known as a key figure in the world of post-impressionism, and ultimately, one of the greatest artists that ever lived. He would never know that he became a hot topic in art classes and his image was going to be used in TV, books and other forms of popular culture. In the words of this great, but tragic man: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Failing in business in 1831, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1836, defeated in his run for president in 1856, Abraham Lincoln was no stranger to rejection and failure. Rather than taking these signs as a motivation for surrender, he refused to stop trying his best. In this great man’s words: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Lincoln was elected in 1861 as the 16th President of the United States of America.  The amount of rejection you receive is not a defining factor. Success is still within your reach.

The word ‘Einstein’ is associated with intelligence and synonymous with genius. Yet it is a famous fact that the pioneer of the theory of general relativity, Albert Einstein himself, could not speak fluently until the age of nine. His rebellious nature led to expulsion from school, and he was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. His earlier setbacks did not stop him from winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. After all, he believed that “Success is failure in progress.”

The now revolutionary Apple started off with two men in a garage. Years later we all know it as a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. Yet, almost unbelievably, Steve Jobs was fired from the very company he began. The dismissal made him realize that his passion for his work exceeded the disappointment of failure. Further ventures such as NeXT and Pixar eventually led Jobs back to the CEO position at Apple. Jobs said in 2005: “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

Bill Gates was a Harvard dropout. He co-owned a business called Traf-O-Data, which was a true failure. However, skill and a passion for computer programming turned this failure into the pioneer of famous software company Microsoft, and the then 31-year-old into the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. In his own words: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” This isn’t to say that dropping out of Harvard will make you into a billionaire, but maybe that shiny degree isn’t worth as much as the drive and passion to succeed.

As a paranoid, troubled child, tormented by nightmares and raised in poverty, it is no surprise that Stephen King grew up to the title: “Master of Horror”. An addiction to drugs and alcohol were his mechanisms to cope with the unhappiness he felt with his life. The frustration he felt towards multiple rejections by publishers in combination with illicit substances caused him to mentally contemplate violence towards his own children. These intense emotions were those that he focused onto his writing. And that’s why he said: “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” Writing became his new coping mechanism, and this is how the master author we know today grew to success.

I want to suggest some ways to cope with failure. First of all, see failure as a process: Failure is not the end of our actions but a part or product of them. It is a phase with in a phase. A child learns to walk by falling down, then getting up, falling down again and rising once more. That routine is not failure; it is merely a growth process. Just as pain and suffering are hidden in our lives, failure is inherent in all actions and undertakings. For us to enjoy the fruit of success, we need to suffer the roughness of failure. The best thing about failure is it is temporary, manageable and solvable. Therefore, see failure as a process towards success.

Does it surprise you that only 400 cokes were sold the first year; Albert Einstein’s Ph.D. dissertation was rejected; Henry Ford had two bankruptcies before his famous success; or Ulysses S. Grant was working as a handyman, written off as a failure, eight years before becoming President of the United States? Rodin couldn’t get into art school on three occasions yet became a great sculptor; Abraham Lincoln lost seven elections before winning the Presidency; and Oprah Winfrey publicly failed several diet attempts before becoming an inspiration for looking great after fifty. Some of the best music was composed by Beethoven. He was deaf. Some of the best poetry on nature was written by Milton. He was blind. One of the greatest world leaders was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He served from a wheelchair.

Setbacks, disappoints, rejections and unsuccessful attempts were not failures to these people. They were steps to their success. That’s the difference between people who are winning at working and people who aren’t. How you deal with your setbacks (big or small) will determine your results.

Anticipate failure: Before you begin any task, anticipate what kind of failures you may expect on the way and prepare yourself adequately to cope with them. Develop action plans, alternate scenarios and intervention mechanisms to deal with different kind of situations as they may develop from time to time and interfere with your progress. The ability to anticipate failure and to do something about them is a sign of maturity and sagacity. This way we minimize our losses, conserve our resources, and remain focused on to the task in hand.

Develop an intelligent attitude to failure: Imperfect as we are, though endowed with great many skills and vast intelligence, we cannot escape from the perils of failure when we embark upon a course of action with which we are not very familiar or comfortable. Wisdom therefore demands an intelligent attitude and calculated approach towards the problem of failure. Failure can be used as an opportunity to measure our progress, polish our skills and faculties and deal with the problems of our lives effectively and efficiently.

Accept responsibility for your failure: By accepting responsibility for your failures, you are confronting failure truthfully and realistically without being defeated by it or oppressed by it. When you find yourself in the middle of a desert, there is no point in blaming the sun or the sand or fate, but accept responsibility and do everything possible under the sun to stay on course and survive. Even   if the actual cause is extraneous, by accepting responsibility one can learn wisely from the situation and prepare oneself for further action.

Demosthenes generally considered the greatest orator of the classical period, once stuttered so badly that he could scarcely speak in public. Determined to improve his skills, he forced himself to practice speaking – with a handful of pebbles in his mouth.

Act with equanimity: Faced with failure, a wise man acts with sense of humility knowing the fact that in this vast universe which is guided by a multitude of visible and invisible forces, diverse interests and mysterious intentions, all that one person can do is to play his or her role sincerely and leave the result to God. In a pragmatic view of the world, man has control over his actions, but not the results they yield. We should therefore stay focused on the techniques, details, processes and skills, stabilizing our minds purely on the action rather than on the fruits.

Don’t give up, be persistent: Weak minds are easily disheartened and admit failure, but not a strong mind determined to end failure through corrective and improvised action borne out of analysis and observation and sustained by the will to persevere. When faced with failure, a strong willed person would continue on his chosen path, knowing well that what can defeat him is not failure but his own untested fears and assumed limitations. A strong willed person would not give up, would not leave in between, would not abandon the hope of success and would not lose sight of the resources that he has invested in pursuit of success.

What did Thomas A. Edison say after 10,000 unsuccessful attempts to develop his electric light bulb? He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Edison realized that men do not fail; they give up trying. He realized that success means not giving up.

Be creative: To cope with failure you need to think creatively and find alternative solutions that may help you remedy the situation and achieve success. Creativity cannot thrive in a mind oppressed by the feelings of guilt, negativity, despair and hopelessness. What is required is a relaxed and composed state of mind, ready for adventure and experimentation, focused and determined to tread the path till the objectives are realized. When faced with failure, therefore keep your mind open and allow it to think freely. Be creative and courageous to weigh options and take calculated risks.

Think positively: A vast array of forces gather around us as we plunge into the pit of failure. Our own thoughts and attitudes start acting against us and make us feel negative and harsh towards ourselves and failures. With the help of positive feelings, successful people usually recover from the bout of depression that usually accompanies failure. They motivate themselves to think positively and develop a positive plan of action to recover from failure. By keeping their hopes alive they keep their chances of success alive.

David Frost once interviewed South African president Nelson Mandela. “What everyone admires about Mandela is how he could have been wrongly incarcerated for 28 years and emerged without bitterness,” Frost later declared, “Such a triumph of the human spirit! When I asked him how he managed it, he simply said, ‘David, I would like to be bitter, but there is no time to be bitter. There is work to do.’”

According to Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” We may need to fail more often in order to succeed like Albert Einstein said; failure really is just success in progress. If you’d rather not to fail, you will probably never succeed. Success comes from moments of frustrations when you’ll be most uncomfortable with. But after you’ve gone through all those bitter times, you’ll become stronger and you’ll get closer to success. So, don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, start failing, and start failing often; that’s how you will succeed. The writer is Director of Don Bosco Institute of Management.

 

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