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I get knocked down... (Building resilience)!

If I asked you to think about the most successful person you know, who comes to mind?

Now think about the characteristics of that person that make him/her successful. Are they inspirational, an expert in their field, respected by their peers or a great leader? Do they have a senior position in a famous company (or own their own company!), lots of money, cars and houses? The picture in your mind is likely related to your definition of success and your own values. You’re probably not picturing someone who lacks confidence, who is kicking themselves with disappointment, who is broke or someone who crossed the finish line last!  Actually, these people are often the same. You just meet them at different stages of their journey. Their experience and reaction to failure can often be a huge contribution to their success.

If you fear failure, don’t worry; you are not alone. In some form or another we have a basic human need to feel safe, secure, to feel that we belong, that we can achieve and that we are the masters of our own destiny. And when we experience ‘failure’, those needs seem like they are not being met. Further, our minds are very lazy when it comes to analyzing this stuff. It seems that we can, almost unconsciously, turn an event into a personality trait. ‘I lost the race’ becomes ‘I’m a loser’. ‘I failed my driving test’ becomes ‘I’m a failure’. And in all its many forms, this boils down to a simple underlying self-limiting belief:  “I am not good enough.” However this response to failure is learned. It has to be. Think of a baby who learns to walk. Over a few months, he progresses from a stationary dependent being to a crawler, then a stander and then he takes his first few steps. …and then, he inevitably falls over. Does the baby think “Well that’s it! That’s me done. I can’t do this. A lifetime on my backside for me”? No! He tries again. And again. And again. And eventually he experiences success.

If this reaction to failure is learned, then maybe it can be unlearned. And that means, building resilience. According to Diane Couto in a HBR article Resilience … is the skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.” Her research suggests that resilience is a more significant determiner of success than education, training or experience.

There are many resources available to help you build resilience. Here are some simple tips that have worked for me.

  1. When you get feedback, don’t react immediately. If it’s hard to take, say nothing rather than reacting defensively. When you have gathered your thoughts, ask for further information from the person who gave you the feedback, and try to understand their perspective. Explore the feedback to see if it’s relevant – often feedback that is hard for us to take is new to us or is what can be considered a blind spot.
  2. If something doesn’t go as planned separate the event from your personality. There is a big difference between believing ‘There are aspects of my teaching that I need to improve’ and ‘I’m an awful teacher’.
  3. Develop the skill of reflection (but don’t dwell on a negative event for too long!). Reflect on positive and negative interactions and think about what you can learn from the occasion and what could be even better next time.
  4. When things are tough, focus on the things that you have in abundance: a healthy body, a skill, great friends and family, a nice day, a cute kitten. Be thankful for them. Focus on the things that are going well in your life.
  5. If you have that thought, “I’m not good enough”, in any of its forms, have an alternative thought that you could tell yourself instead. Here are some that I’ve heard from my coaching clients:
  • “I’m good enough to have gotten this far and I can get better!”
  • “I’m willing to start again tomorrow”
  • “I’m going to improve”
  • “I’m exactly where I need to be”
  • “I  can learn from this”
  • “This is just a moment in time and it will pass”
  • “I’m going to give myself a break today and analyze this tomorrow when I think about it logically”

It doesn’t matter what you say, as long it is positive, true for you and can shift your focus from an idea of failure towards improvement, learning, acceptance or future success.

Success is not about a series of fortunate events. It doesn’t mean that the feelings of sadness, disappointment, loss or even anger are not valid. But they are not likely to get you back on the path to your goal. Success is about experiencing failure, learning from it, dusting yourself off and trying again. As the Chinese saying goes,加油 (jia you)!

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