It’s become a cliche to suggest that people learn from their failures. We’ve heard this advice so many times that it’s lost any real meaning.
Obviously, we want to continue learning. And obviously, we’ll have disappointments. As J.K. Rowling astutely put it,
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case you fail by default.”
But this doesn’t remove the sting of disappointment. Failure hurts and most of us will go to great lengths to avoid it. Even if that means holding back from pursuing our true ambitions.
How do we overcome this block? More reminders on the importance of learning from each failure? More inspirational stories?
If those were sufficient, we’d be all set. We’d already be learning from every failure. The entire self-help industry already overwhelms our inboxes with reminders and inspirational quotes.
So it’s clear that this method isn’t enough.
We also need to change our mindset. And change how we think about both failure and success.
Success or Failure? Depends When You Ask.
My high school girlfriend dumped me. This was back in 1999, before cell phones and texts, so she let me know via AOL Instant Messenger. For anyone too young to remember the program, it wasn’t an impressive way to be kicked aside.
At the time, it was devastating. For a little while. Then I moved on. A typical high school romance that ended in typical high school romance fashion.
And while I didn’t see the breakup coming, I really should have. I was acting like an idiot. I didn’t realize it until there was some consequence for it. Which helped me mature. And helped me start treating people with the respect they deserve.
If you’d asked me the day after she dumped me, I’d have classified it as a terrible failure. Six months later, I’d grown and matured as a result. And I was a better person because of it.
Was it still a failure? Was it then a success? Or was it just what happened that day which put my life on a slightly different direction?
Susan Cain was once a self-described “ambivalent corporate attorney.” She didn’t love the work but she did it well and was working on a partnership track. Until one day she was told she wouldn’t be put up for partner. She broke down, asked for a leave of absence, and then remembered she wanted to be a writer.
That same day, she started writing. She eventually wrote Quiet, an expertly researched and highly engaging book that’s inspired countless introverts to find their place in the world.
Did Susan fail to gain a partnership track? Or did she succeed in avoiding a career that wasn’t her calling? Was this a failure or a success? I suppose it depends on when you asked the question. That fateful day, you might consider it a failure. Today, you’d probably call it a success.
But why do we need to call it anything? Why does every supposed event need to be seen as the culmination of our exploits to date? As the great writer, direction, and actor Orson Welles once said,
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Failure, Success, or Just Life?
The best decisions are the ones that end well. And the best actions are those that bring the best consequences.
But consequences are time-dependent. We often can’t see the full impact of an event for weeks, months, or even years.
Then why are we so quick to classify events as failures or successes? What if they’re neither, simply events that have shaped our lives in one way or another? Events that have put us on a slightly altered path and now we get to decide how we proceed.
In Tim Ferriss’s latest achievement, Tribe of Mentors, best-selling author Neil Strauss says the best thing that ever happened to him was not getting accepted into journalism school. After this “failure” he took a reporting job and learned through experience rather than academics. And he recognized the value in following his passion instead of drifting along the supposed path. As Neil tells it,
“I realized that the outcome is not the outcome. In other words, what we think of as endpoints to a goal are really just forks in a road that is endlessly forking.”
Today’s outcome is only one fork in the road. We don’t yet know where this road will lead. We only know there will be more forks. And we’ll have many more opportunities to alter our path.
As Oprah counseled new graduates during Harvard’s 2013 commencement address,
“There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
Today didn’t give us failure. Or success. Today gave us a new direction. Now we get to decide where that takes us.
Input Over Output
Joe DiMaggio led the 1939 Yankees to a record of 106 – 45, winning their 11th pennant and fourth consecutive World Series. It was a team considered by many to be the best in the history of Major League Baseball.
But they also lost 45 games.
45 losses. But not 45 failures. The team didn’t have a broken system. They didn’t need to overreact and make sweeping changes after each loss. Some days just didn’t go their way. For any number of reasons.
That seems obvious. But we see people ignore this mentality every day. We watch others, and ourselves, overreact to every disappointment with the desire to banish it from ever happening again.
If we see each disappointment as a failure, we associate failure with the outcome. And we’ll try to adjust our behavior to avoid that specific result.
Then we’re encouraged to abandon good practices just because they didn’t work out today. Or worse, repeat poor practices because they resulted in a win today.
In a moving letter to his daughter Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald imparted the timeless advice to not “worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault.”
Instead of agonizing over a loss, we should evaluate the decisions we made that put us on that path. Instead of asking if we’re happy with the outcome, we should be asking if we’re happy with our personal contribution.
Did we do everything to the best of our ability? And what can we learn so that next time, our best will be even better?
Those are the questions that will best prepare us for that next fork in the road. And those are the questions that help us move beyond each of life’s disappointments.
A New Mindset
Would you rather be considered smart or driven? Do you value intelligence more than work ethic?
How we see and value our own abilities affect our behavior. As Carol Dweck found through over twenty years of research,
“[T]he view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Dweck found that people demonstrate two distinct mindsets through life’s challenges. The fixed mindset labels our intelligence and abilities as static constants that we can’t noticeably change. Success is the confirmation of these traits. In this mindset, success reinforces our level of intelligence and skill. But failure contradicts it.
Every challenge becomes a need to repeatedly prove yourself.
All one-uppers, complainers, whiners, negative review seekers, and conservative talk show hosts fall in this category.
In contrast, the growth mindset sees today’s intelligence and skill as a starting point. It values challenge and sees struggles not as evidence of unintelligence but as a vital step for growth. As Dweck writes,
“The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
In the growth mindset, we no longer see ourselves as failing. We only see ourselves as learning.
Choose Your Mindset.
Our mindset is just our internal thoughts. As easy to change as it is to be mindful of what we’re thinking.
When we’re holding onto a fixed mindset, our thoughts are critical and judgmental of others. We’re constantly comparing their performance, their behavior, and their character to our own. We’re assessing and ranking at all times. And clinging to our feelings of superiority wherever we can grab them.
A fixed mindset is an adversarial mindset. Because everyone we meet is a potential challenge to our own worth.
But in a growth mindset, we’re not judgmental, but curious. We’re not evaluating others in order to rank them, but to learn from them. We’re not afraid of meeting someone more talented or better skilled, we celebrate it. Because it gives us another opportunity to learn.
When our minds align with a growth mindset, we stop seeing our struggles as failures. We see them as challenges. We see them as opportunities to learn.
Start with Good.
Changing a mindset. It’s an easy practice to start. A difficult one to maintain.
It’s easy to be less judgmental and less critical at this moment. It’s more difficult to sustain these behaviors when we’re under pressure. And when life throws struggles at us.
As a former Navy Seal, Jocko Willink is no stranger to life’s challenges. But through everything, his commitment to growth and development never wavers.
In Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, he tells us that his standard response to any difficulty is “Good.”
While Jocko Willink and Carol Dweck would seem to be as different as two people can possibly be, this mentality perfectly captures the growth mindset. By responding with “Good,” Jocko turns every challenge into an opportunity. He turns every seeming failure into the start of his next path.
As Jocko describes,
“Oh, mission got canceled? Good. We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.
Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.
Didn’t get funded? Good. We own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.
Got injured? Good. Needed a break from training.
Got tapped out? Good. It’s better to tap out in training than to tap out on the street.
Got beat? Good. We learned.
Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.”
By responding with “Good,” we no longer see failures. We only see today’s fork in a road that is endlessly forking.
And echoing Kyle Maynard’s motivation of “Not Dead, Can’t Quit,” Jocko gives us the critical importance of responding with Good:
“Finally: if you can say the word “good,” then guess what? It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you. So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, re-engage—and go out on the attack.”
This moment happened. It’s done. And we don’t yet know whether we’ll look back on this second and see its impact as positive or negative.
It’s not the end. It’s only this moment’s result. The next moment brings new choices. The next more still. That’s what will determine our future. That’s where we should apply our focus.
So say “Good.” And adopt a growth mindset. And never fail again.