On Failure and Disappointments

We all want our wishes to come true and be successful in our every endeavor. We don’t want to fail, as our failures set us back. It starts when we are very young, when we want to be our parents favorite, the favorite amongst our school buddies, the one who gets all A’s, get into the best colleges, have the best opportunities, have that job with a 6 or 7 figure salary, have that attractive or handsome girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, etc. In reality, in life’s journey we seldom get all of these and our life has its own share of what one would call failures or disappointments. Some of us learn from them and let it shape our life, others amongst us get dejected and forlorn and lose our motivation. Many of us live with that discontent and feel dissatisfied comparing ourselves with what others have or thinking of what could have been. Little do we realize that what we are is a result of all our experiences and what we learned from them.

Why this human aversion to failures and disappointments. I am not saying we should crave for them. But don’t we all learn much more from failing then getting it right the first time. Later on in life when we reflect, we seldom look at what we achieved what haunts us is the failures we had. Hopefully we learnt valuable lessons from our failures that made our life more interesting.

What if we are not admonished for our failures? What if we were motivated to fail forward? How often have you been asked to do your best and not worry about the results? When you get that F grade the first reaction is probably you didn’t study, you need to work harder. You are told you are a goof ball, who makes bad choices. Maybe you were, but we learn important things when we goof off. You learn how to socialize, you learn to talk, explore the limits of your abilities. The academic types are exercising the analytical portion of their brain with limited stimulus to the rest. It turns out our social skills are equally important for our development as our academic prowess.

We don’t talk much about our failures. Did any of us plan to fail? Our disinterest might be due to our lack of understanding our inability to comprehend. When we are in school what we learn is dependent on our teachers. They are not perfect either. The smart folks amongst us learn despite the teachers due to their own higher cognitive skills. What if our cognitive skills are just a biological function,the ability of our neurons to form connections? When we have a failure in our relationships, do we ask ourselves why? We focus a lot on what we didn’t get but not much on why? A relationship is a two way street and complex. When someone rejects us we are hurt, a friend, someone who were hoping to have a relationship with or a job we are seeking. We are so absorbed in feeling sorry for ourselves that we seldom analyze what really happened. A failed relationship is more likely a mismatch of expectations than a failure.

Life is a set of random occurrences and failure is just one of many consequences. Often times a thin line separates failure from success. If you watch sport you see this every day. One team wins or loses at the buzzer by scoring or missing a three pointer or a goal or a home run or a six. Hours of preparation and planning go waste for only one team can win or only one person can get gold. Examples abound around us of the few who persevere and achieve great heights and the many who give up along the way.

Why do many of us give up easily? It is probably because we were not prepared to handle the circumstance that caused us to fail. If we are lucky to have escaped with our life intact, we have all the time to prepare better for the next time. For that we need to subject ourselves to inquiry. To be an Usain Bolt, a Roger Federer or Lionel Messi requires a lot of work. They all perhaps experienced failures early in their careers and made course corrections along the way by learning from their mistakes.

What if we changed how we educate our children? Instead of grading the children only on their ability to learn something we need to start evaluating them on their ability to learn from failures. Many years ago in business school I experienced this. We (my team) were pitching our business plan to a bunch of VCs who were brutal and tore our plan to shreds but gave us a second chance. When we came back we were much better prepared and had addressed all our holes and got rewarded for being the most improved plan. Most successful businesses deploy a root cause failure analysis process to permanently solve issues rather than solve symptoms. We need to all incorporate that in our lives and train our kids as well. We should stop frowning on their failures. Instead, we should use the opportunity to teach them how they can learn from it. If learning can happen that way from a young age we could revolutionize how people can fend for themselves in their lives. Imagine a world where the role of a teacher is not to impart knowledge but to educate their students on how to learn from their failures.

The next time we encounter failure or disappointment either on our own or see our children or coworkers fail. Let’s make a concerted effort to ask why, or teach our children or co-workers to ask why. Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves or for them, we would be much better of if we can understand or help others understand why they failed. There can be no better learning than that. Suddenly all the failures and disappointments become pivotal to ours and their progress.

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