How do I turn disappointment and failure into learning and success?
Lately, in our social network, Wendy and I have had an inordinate number of friends facing severe disappointments and challenges: untimely death, nasty divorce, health disabilities, job loss, professional setbacks, marital/family problems, crises of faith, and so forth. Whew!
Obviously, we care about the human suffering associated with these inevitable challenges. In addition, these personal calamities not only impact our personal well-being but also our ability to accomplish our professional responsibilities.
We wonder how we can help?
Start by running into the challenge.
Everyone I know who succeeds has had disappointments. My colleagues and I found in our leadership work that truly great leaders often have a major personal or professional disappointment that they overcame. Facing and overcoming personal challenges can be a powerful source of growth and learning. This year, I gave my wife an embroidered pillow with one of her favorite sayings: “I’m not failing; I’m learning.”
I like to turn “failure” into learning by considering two questions. First, I ask myself, “Did I honestly make the best choice or decision at the time with what I knew then?” Generally, the answer is, “Yes, given what I knew, I did the best I could.” When this is the answer, I simply move on. I did what I thought was best and now can let go and move on. But sometimes the answer is, “No, I knew better but did not act on this knowledge.” In this case, I probe myself for why I did not use the information available to me: was it my pride, stubbornness, haste, fear, lack of skills, predispositions, or something else that kept me from accessing and using the information? This personal examination helps me learn.
My second question is, “Knowing what I now know (after the choice or decision did not work), if I could redo what I did, what would I have done differently, and more important, what will I do differently in the same or similar situation going forward?”I seek to anticipate the next iteration of a similar setting and predetermine what I might do differently to effect a better outcome.
Continue with a menu of personal choices to turn failure into learning.
With these two questions as background, let me offer ten tips from my personal experiences with disappointment and failure that have enabled my personal resilience and helped me either move on or learn from the situation.
1. Control what I can control. Often a disappointment, whether my own or another’s in my social circle, is out of my control, but I can control my response to it. I can’t control others’ choices, but I can manage my response to those also. I endeavor to focus less on the event and more on my response to it (possibly by asking the above two questions).
2. Learn empathy. Learning from disappointment or failure increases empathy for others. Because I have been fired, have made mistakes in relationships that matter to me, and have had health problems, I can better relate to others in similar circumstances. Gaining empathy for others through my disappointments enables me to offer support and provides a purpose for the disappointments.
3. Rejoice in rejection. When I feel disappointment from failure or rejection, I try to rejoice that something mattered enough to me to feel remorse. If I did not feel disappointment, the event did not matter enough to care. Losing a job I care about means more than losing a job I do not care about. Caring is good.
4. Respect others’ agency. Too often, my disappointments come because I cannot control others. Not every bid I offer to connect with others is reciprocated; not every idea I have is valued by others; and not every decision I make impacts others as I might intend. I need to respect others’ agency and right to make their choices and to respond in ways that work for them. Almost every time I try to impose my will on others, things don’t go well—frankly, for them or for me.
5. Manage expectations. My aspirations should exceed my resources to encourage me to stretch and grow but not so much that I aspire beyond my abilities to deliver. I have struggled most of my adult life with weight. When I aspire to weigh what I probably can never attain, I become more discouraged and less likely to have sustained change.
6. Distract myself. Sometimes the pain of disappointment requires perspective. I have learned to take some time out to distract myself with reading, writing (e.g., this column), watching sports, talking to family and friends, walking, or eating chocolate (ahem, done too much of that). Giving myself license to distract myself allows time for perspective to broaden my view of a situation.
7. Focus on what is working more than what is not. Focusing on what is wrong limits progress to overcoming the past; focusing on what is right and building on it expands opportunity to what can be. One of my father’s favorite church hymns was Johnson Oatman’s song “Count Your Blessings,” and the words capture this more positive outlook on life:
My dad would frequently sing this song off key and loud! But the message remains with me.
8. Serve others. If I can help others succeed, even when I fail, I grow. This is not always easy, but in my daily musings, I ask myself, “Whom can I serve today?” Often no one comes to mind; but when a name does come to my consciousness and I serve the person, my disappointments are put into context.
9. Sleep. When I have a tough day with work, relationships, health, or something else, rather than try to resolve these quandaries, I simply go to bed. Sleep, for me, can be a great well-being narcotic, waking in the morning to the freshness of a new day and beginning with a clear mind and spirit to meet challenges.
10. Your tip? What would you add to this tip list for personal resilience? What would you tell your friends facing inevitable disappointments and/or challenges?
Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.