Monday, April 16, 2012

How to keep going after failure

We’ve all heard it a million times – that failure is a requirement for success. I remember my brother had this famous oft-heard quote on a basketball poster in his room:  

“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” - Michael Jordan

And this all sounds great. It’s especially comforting when you feel overwhelmed by failure or you’re feeling inadequate.

However, when the moment of failure actually occurs, you want to take that quote and throw it out the window.

Because it’s hard to have perspective when you’re in the eye of the failure storm. It’s ugly and hurtful and can cause you to sink so far into yourself that you extinguish all sense of hope.

And no matter how many times you try to remind yourself that failure is part of success, your brain tries to trick you and tells you that your failures aren’t part of success, that they just make you a failure.

But of course – that isn’t true. It’s not true at all.

I was at the Phi Theta Kappa convention this past week (i.e. one of the most amazing conferences ever; hope to see you there next year in CA!) and we heard Amy Chua speak, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

This funny and intelligent Harvard-educated Yale law professor said a lot of things I’ll never forget; but the one that struck me the most was the story of when she wanted to change from being a lawyer to a professor, and applied for 100 teaching jobs.

She got 100 rejections.

And so she decided teaching wasn’t for her.

When she told her father, who had immigrated to America, he said: “only 100 rejections and you’re giving up?”

That is the immigrant mentality, she told us. And it’s a mentality many of us are losing.

We have to grab hold of it if we want to succeed. It is what made our country great, and we are in stark danger of becoming too entitled, too easily discouraged, and too unmotivated to care about moving ourselves and our country forward.

I am one of the guilty ones. Sometimes I have a failure and wallow in its mire and feel like I just can’t do anything. In my darkest moments of failure I've thought: why do I even bother; what's the point?  

Sure I’ll tell myself “failure is part of success – every great person I look up to has failed. Heck one of my favorites, Walt Disney, said it was important for every young person to have a good hard failure at least once.”

But does it really make me feel better in the moment?


So what does?

Usually that’s when I need other people. Eventually the quotes and the ideas about failure really do help, but to get you out of that first horrible feeling of failure, good friends and family can often do the trick (e.g. like Amy's dad).

So here’s what to do when you find yourself feeling like you’ve failed at something:

1. Be sad for no more than 1 day
2. Write down all of the good qualities about yourself in a journal
3. Talk to a trusted friend or mentor about your failure and be honest about how it’s making you feel. But don’t just vent. Also ask for advice. And listen.
4. Own your part of the failure. Do not be quick to blame. Figure out what to do better next time.
5. Read an article or biography of a successful person you admire, and note their failures. More importantly – note what they did after failure that made all the difference.
6. Adopt the immigrant mentality and remind yourself that anything worth pursuing is hard, and failure inevitable.
7. Keep going.

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