I was listening to an interview with Jia Jiang on the Unmistakable Creative podcast the other day. They talked about how Jiang deals with failure and rejection. How he uses them as learning opportunities.
That got me thinking about how I’ve dealt with failure in the past and how I’ve been trained to avoid it. Even though, sometimes, it was plain obvious that failure was eminent …
It made think about how I developed this adversarial reaction towards failure.
It was only when I was going through the college admission process that I first had the real, stingy and bitter taste of failure. I’d failed at countless things before that, like my aptitude as screenwriter or stand up comedy career. But none of the previous failures shook me to the core like this one.
To apply for college I had to pass the final exams in my area of specialization — like a college major but in high-school. Mine was Science, so I had to have solid grades on the Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry exams. I was the classic nerd: straight A’s student, fast learner and studied a lot …
However, this time I was taking the first steps towards deciding what to do with my future. That’s a very big deal at 17! Long story short, I had to go on the second call, like a second round, so I could repeat my Mathematics exam.
In hindsight, it was nothing out of the ordinary. It’s summer time after a busy school year and then there’s this immense pressure of becoming an adult, taking the reins of your life and going to college. While most of the kids are at the beach having fun, you have to study hard for a decisive Mathematics exam. It’s part of learning how to be an adult. You have to stick with your choices and, sometimes, it means sacrificing a few of things.
I remember that one thing that haunted me the most was the fact that everyone else that passed on the first call would start school sooner. I’d be the kid that passed only on the second round.
What haunted me the most, was being the kid that had to take extra classes to catch-up with all the courses of the first semester. I’m so glad the University put the extra time and effort to helping us out.
Looking back, I realize I didn’t make the best out of this experience. It was a scary moment, because I could be postponing my life for at least one year. Something that terrifying at the time. But where I failed the most was not learning from this situation.
Failure is like an iceberg. The visible part of the experience may be brutally painful, stressful and discouraging. You have to go underneath the surface and look for the transformational learning opportunities.
The whole time I was so focused on the surface with all its visible consequences, like having to retake the exam. I was dismissing the learnings hidden deep down in that stressful experience.
In this case, I could have taken some time to analyze and dissect the matter. Trying to understand what lead me to fail the exam in the first place would have been a better tactic. Instead of being scared, confused and desperately trying to pour knowledge into my brain in the hopes that something stuck.
Where I failed was to learn from this experience. I wasted a great opportunity to be better and see things differently.
I believe there’s always something to learn from any kind of failure. Be it a inconsequential or a painful and destructive one. Sounds very poetic but, it’s only when the dust settles that you can see what’s left. And sometimes that is more relevant and enlightening than the act of failing itself.
It’s the repercussions, how you adapt, how you get yourself together, and sometimes others as well, and move on. That’s what makes the difference. It’s how you start seeing things differently, analyzing situations from different angles. Studying your hypotheses before making a decision.
Failure is a brutal reality check
I’m in the course of writing my first book. In itself, this can also turn out to be a massive failure, but thus far has been a rewarding learning experience. This has made me realize that in the same way we’ve been trained to fear and avoid failure, we can also train ourselves to embrace it. Or at least measure its consequences and gradually learn how to deal with it.
Taking on a new hobby, trying a sport for the first time, learning a different language. Doing that important presentation at work … These are all uncomfortable, challenging situations where the chance of failure can be more than 50%.
You can use every moment as a failure playground and make the most out of it.
The world of professional sports has long discovered a way to create failure playgrounds. Athletes and coaches spend countless hours reviewing their plays. They understand that a thorough analysis can unveil patterns that are not seem on the surface. Most importantly, they use continual practice and analysis as learning moments.
A spontaneous play becomes a key play, practiced during training sessions and put into action on game day. It is continually reviewed and refined. Even designed to a particular player.
We can use our daily activities as failure playgrounds too. We can shift the mindset from fearing and avoiding failure to training ourselves to embrace it. We can train ourselves to learn the most from every experience.
You’ll still work hard and prepare for that important presentation at work, as you would normally do. And then, after you’re done, you make sure to analyze every minute. Ask yourself questions, such as, How did I feel during the presentation? Could I have dealt better with the questions? Could I have talked a bit slower and with fewer uh, ah, huuums …? How was my body language: did I look and feel tense? Ask for the opinion of someone that was in the room, ask them for candid feedback. Calibrate that along with the questions you asked yourself.
Both the awful and the exceptional moments are powerful learning opportunities.
The awful ones remind you about what to focus on, and are opportunities to course-correct. The exceptional ones remind you about the arduous, but gratifying, path to becoming better. They open your eyes to what’s ahead.
Failure doesn't have to be just a negative moment in your life. It can be an eye-opening change catalyst. Every interaction, every situation is a moment of transformation. So taking as many learnings as you can from failure, will always compound into a better you.
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