Resilience – Is Failure the Key to Success?

Resilience is becoming a more common topic for individuals seeking to develop and improve but maybe achievement is not related to persevering and pushing yourself hard but rather in starting to enjoy the failures and learning new lessons from them.

Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. If you learn something new from every setback or failure then you continue to grow and improve. This is the whole idea of reflective practice that exists in some career streams, where on a regular basis you are expected to look back, spot the key events and analyse them with a view to learning from them.

But there is more to failure than accepting it for the sake of learning lessons. Peter Bregman, in his HBR blog on the subject in November 2009 suggests that we should enjoy ‘trying to achieve something’.

He lists three conditions that need to be in place in order for you to achieve something. The first two would be accepted across the board I expect, namely wanting to achieve something and believing that you can achieve it. If there is not desire and passion to achieve, then what will be your driving force. In fact why are you bothering to aim at this at all? Secondly if the goal is actually impossible you are wasting your time. Even if you only believe it to be impossible then again, what will make you devote 100% effort to the cause. As I write, the football world cup is showing evidence of teams who go a few goals behind and they give up simply because they no longer believe they can win.

The third condition Bregman gives is that you need to enjoy trying to achieve the goal. This is actually the opposite of achieving something — you have to positively enjoy the failures you encounter en route. You have to be willing to try something again and again, knowing that you are quite likely to fail on this attempt but not letting that put you off.

There is certainly a danger that if we think we won’t succeed then we give up without trying or we are so worried about possible failure that our Self 1 distracts us completely from peak performance (see W. Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Work). We need to take a Dr Pepper mentality and ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’, then balance that with the positive outcomes of failure and carry on regardless.

Once we start to try, we can have results, and from results flow learning and from learning comes improvement. But this then goes against the idea that people who only ‘try’ to achieve are not as successful as those who set out with the knowledge that they will succeed.

So there are some negatives to this idea of embracing failure revolving around the idea that you set out with the expectation of failure. I don’t believe this is what Bregman is meaning.

Plan to succeed and then if failure crosses your path, welcome it willingly, recognise it as a step along the way and suck out all the learning that you can from it. Get up and give it another go. If you fail a second time then start to view it as a challenge to be overcome, as a game to be played, as a puzzle to solve, finding the solution that will finally open up the prize to you.

One example that springs to mind for me was in the arena of sales and marketing. It was something I had never tackled and believed I could not do. Consequently I left it to a colleague who was well-practised. When he no longer had the time to devote to it, I had to try. After I stopped seeing the rejections as a personal thing, I started to see it as a game, to find the key that would unlock the sale, without trying to force it on the potential client. As I kept persevering, I began to see little bits of development, but I also enjoyed the game. As an unexpected bonus, I also realised that I was getting better at talking to strangers, making small talk at parties and actually being interested in people and their lives.

Yes, repetition can become dull if we let it, however without repeated practice we will never become the best at what we do — Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book ‘Outliers’ reckons that it takes 4000 hours of practice at something to become professional, 8000 hours to become a master and 10000 hours to become an artist at the top of your field. Without the practise we will not rise to the top.

What does all this mean for us in the world of jobs though?

I think there are two applications, firstly to improve the existing job that we have and secondly to help us in the pursuit of a new job.

If we want to enjoy our existing job we need to recognise that the repetitive practises that we are involved in are not just boring and dull but a challenge to us. How can we improve and become brilliant in them? How many hours will we willingly devote to our jobs to make ourselves a master? Also though, how can we find interest in them and make our job more enjoyable? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Flow’ covers this in some detail.

However, it is the art of job hunting to which I feel this concept applies most fully. Where else do we experience failures that knock us back so easily, that make us consider giving up? What elements of the process can you learn from? Maybe its the feedback from the company that knocked you back. Possibly also its how you felt as you wrote the documents. Or maybe you have identified areas that you skimped on and know that you should have done better. Was your heart just not in this one and you are well aware that your efforts were sub-standard? How well-tailored was your CV to the specific job?

As well as the learning for next time though, how can you make a game of it, pitting your wits against the deadly recruiters, playing them at their own games, trying to build a strategy that overcomes them so that they hire you?

How we react when things go wrong can definitely be key to our ultimate success. I particularly prize learning and one of my favourite quotes is “I’ve learnt so much from my failures that I’m thinking of having some more”. No, I’m not planning to fail but I am ready to embrace failure if it occurs and use it to my advantage, to bring ultimate success.

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