How to bounce back from failure

pressure1We all have our own definition of failure. For some of us, it’s not getting the job or promotion, or not getting the exam grades, or not managing to stick to the diet or exercise regime.

Failure can be the cake that doesn’t rise, the film script that nobody buys, the performance or presentation that falls flat.

We have what we call failed relationships. We have failures in communication. The possibilities for things to go wrong and for our hopes and expectations to be dashed are so vast that we might feel amazed that anything ever goes right.

And yet things do go right, just as they go wrong. Messing up, falling short, making mistakes is all part of being a complex human being.

If you accept failure as inevitable and learn to handle it positively, you will stop yourself being overwhelmed by dispiriting thoughts and a sense of inadequacy.

Have a wallow

It’s happened, and you’re cut up about it. Don’t try to push it behind you and move on, not just yet. You feel stupid, hurt, humiliated, angry. That’s allowed.

Acknowledge these feelings and express them. You could speak them out loud, or write them down. You might have a pal who will listen as you berate yourself and pour out everything, all the not-fairness and how-could-I-have-been-so stupid and I-might-as-well-give up-now agonizings. You might want to accompany this with coffee and cheesecake or a cold beer.

But that’s it. Give yourself a defined length of time for this. How long you spend on this stage depends on the circumstances, but set a limit.

Accept and express your painful emotions, then move on. You’ve got work to do.

Work out what went wrong

When you feel calm enough, stand back from the event and analyse what went wrong.

It’s good to do this unemotionally, so it could be helpful to use the discipline of making a chart or list or mind map showing your actions and their consequences.

Try to identify what might have happened had you behaved differently — not that anyone can know for certain, but just to give you ideas about how different approaches could have different results.

If you like a bit of structure, you could use headings such as:

  • Outcome I wanted

  • Outcome I got

  • What went wrong

  • What I’ve learnt

  • Anything I need to do to get a better result next time (learn different ways of communicating, update skills, prepare more thoroughly, delegate, ask for help etc)

It can be helpful to talk through these aspects with someone else, who may or may not be your crying-into-your-beer buddy.

Be honest and realistic

Tempting though it is to blame the idiot who was late with the figures, or the interviewer who failed to understand what you have to offer, be ready to claim responsibility for your part in what went wrong.

Be careful not to claim more than your share, and don’t overdo the self-recrimination. Just because this particular thing didn’t work out, you are not a total failure.

Focus on the big picture

When we are set on achieving a particular goal, that goal can become bigger and more significant than it need be. Not achieving it is an opportunity for some re-assessment of your situation.

Reframe the event

Put what happened into a different perspective. Make it a small part of your experience, a piece of your continuing story. It’s a blip, a setback, one chapter or even one paragraph (or one sentence, if you are enviably young and just starting) in your whole narrative.

Change your definition of the event. You could see it not as something you failed at, but something you tried out, something you had a go at, an experiment.

Create your own story

Be ready to present what happened in a way that suits you and that directs other people in the way to respond. Don’t allow yourself or any other person to define you by your failures.

Always have a Plan B

Don’t look on Plan B as a fallback as feeling that you have to go for second-best may only increase your sense of failure. Instead, have a Plan A and a Plan B and accept that you might find yourself following either course of action.

Once you have acknowledged this possibility and worked out a strategy for each, throw all your efforts into Plan A.

What did xxxx do?

Our shared history abounds with people who overcame failure, sometimes multiple failures, and went on to noteworthy achievements. Think of one who can be your inspiration.

This choice is very personal — if you’re into sport, for example, you could choose one of the many instances of sportspeople who have bounced back.

If your interests lie elsewhere, focus on someone from a field you relate to. It might even be someone from your personal life. But what all these people have in common is they didn’t let failure deter them.┬áIf they had, you wouldn’t have heard of them, would you?

As for that cake that doesn’t rise — cover it in custard or cream and call it pudding.

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