Resilience: Get Good at Failing

We hate to fail. There is no doubt about it. When something is branded “failure,” “mistake,” “screw up,” “error,” or “setback,” it tends to stick around in our memory and bring with it a cloud of negative emotions. Resilience is our ability to stand up, dust ourselves off, and move on quickly and with no loss of power.

This insightful New York Times article elaborates some of the psychological and neurological reasons for our fixation on failure. Check it out. It may illuminate some mental light bulbs.

Do you know what your resiliency factor is? Let’s define that as the number of successes it takes you to forgive yourself, move on, and bounce back from a single failure. According to the article, five is a common number – some people need five successes to compensate for each failure. No wonder we hate to fail!!

Resilience Step 1: The Grammar of Failure

But whatever your resiliency factor is today, it can be reduced to zero if you start to take a closer look at what failure really is. Let’s start our analysis of failure with simple grammar. “To fail” is a verb that usually takes an auxiliary verb. We cause problems for ourselves when we forget to add the auxiliary. For example:

  • I failed.

This is grammatically correct. But it is not specific enough to be valuable. And it renders you clueless about what to do about it. But even more problematically, it enables you to do the worst thing you can do when faced with a setback, and that is to turn the verb into a noun:

  • I am a failure.

No, you’re not. Or, ok, you are. If you say you are, then in your own experience you will be. Branding yourself this way is always your choice. I don’t recommend it. Instead, if you want to improve your resilience, you have to add the auxiliary verb.

  • I failed to get the report done on time.
  • I failed to impress the client in the presentation.
  • I failed to gain the buy-in of my manager.
  • I failed to build an accurate model.

These sentences are already much more innocuous and less charged because they include a reference to the objective you were trying to achieve. And whose objectives were those? Yours!!! At a certain level, failure is only ever a failure to achieve your personal objectives. When you start there, you are already gaining a sense of power over your own performance and creating an opening to grow.

Resilience Step 2: Look Closer at Failure

Adding the auxiliary verb to a failure when you look at your past performance and recent setbacks is already a huge step towards resilience.

But in many cases, this slightly more specific description of the setback will not necessarily allow you to completely let it go. So you need to look even closer. This takes some courage, but you can do it.  Let’s take our example: “I failed to impress the client in the presentation.”

Start by asking questions that go deeper into the nature of the failure.

  • Who specifically did you fail to impress?
  • Why did you fail to impress him?
  • When did things start to go south?

As you think about it, you will remember more details. “Well, it was going really well up until I got to the sales growth chart. When I got there, Bob had some big questions. That was when things went off the rails.” OK good. Now look even closer:

  • What specifically went wrong in that moment?

“I failed to answer some of Bob’s questions effectively and gracefully. They were unexpected and I lost my cool and appeared nervous. That was when I think he lost confidence in me.”

Excellent! We started at the 30,000 foot view: “I failed to impress the client.” And now we are getting down to the very ground-level detail. You have pinpointed the precise moment when things turned and what precisely went wrong.

But now, can you look even closer to understand why things went wrong in precisely that way?

  • Why was I unable to answer those questions more eloquently?

Now you can dissect the specific issue. You will realize: “I hadn’t anticipated those questions and so I hadn’t prepared for them. In addition, I do not have a lot of practice fielding questions I don’t know the answer to, and I get rattled easily when I am not confident that I know the right answer.” Ultimately, you can get to a refined understanding of the precise failure.

  1. I failed to anticipate certain questions the client might have about my analysis.
  2. I then failed to maintain my poise in the face of uncertainty.

Now that you understand where you went wrong, you may find that all of the negative charge is already gone. So, you are in a position of power over your failures and from there, you are in a position to plan for future successes.

Resilience Step 3: Turning Insights into Progress

These first steps will go a long way to helping you let go of the experience and move on. But to help you learn from the experience, which is of course, the true value of failure, the final secret is:

Extract the learning and take action. (Turn those lemons into lemonade.) 

To figure out how to grow from each individual setback, take each root cause and see what you could reasonably have done to avert those errors. Let’s take the first one: “I failed to anticipate certain client questions on my analysis.” Here are some questions to ask:

  • What more could I have done to predict these questions?
  • How could I have better prepared to address this specific client’s concerns and questions?
  • What resources could I have used to be more prepared?
  • Were there things I could have done before the presentation to test the ideas proactively with the client?

This will lead you to all kinds of useful next steps. Such as, next time, you can…

  1. Ensure all your assumptions and inputs in your analysis are clear and elaborated in the presentation. Get feedback on this from teammates.
  2. Go through your analysis and imagine the client’s perspective: think about all the questions they might have and proactively plan talking points to address them.
  3. Mock the presentation with a peer and ask them to point out anything that is unclear.
  4. Go through the presentation with your manager and proactively discuss the client’s concerns. See what questions your manager thinks you will get.
  5. Vet the key ideas and insights with the client beforehand and solicit his input and collaboration.
  6. And finally, acknowledge your own limitations. Sometimes, you will just get questions that you couldn’t have possibly predicted. That is part of what makes life interesting and worthwhile.

And that will lead you to think about your second failure: losing your composure when faced with questions you didn’t have ready answers to. Moments such as this are unavoidable and will likely only increase throughout your career. So how can you improve your ability to face the unknown with poise and grace. Some ideas:

  1. Get advice and tips from colleagues and superiors.
  2. Mock the presentation with a friend and have them ask you crazy questions. Practice responding with a calm, straight face.
  3. Get coaching and feedback from your manager after upcoming presentations.

Or try some even more creative approaches:

  1. Engage in more lively dialogue with people you encounter in daily life: with the checkout clerk at the grocery store, the bus driver, or the security guard in your building. See how engaging authentically with people in daily life helps you calm down in uncertain interactions.
  2. Join Toastmasters and practice improvisational speeches with colleagues.
  3. Take an improv class and challenge yourself to react spontaneously to the input of others.
  4. What other creative ways can you come up with?

The final nail in the coffin of a failure is turning it into an opportunity for growth. When you can do that quickly and with minimal emotional down time, then you have reduced your resiliency factor to zero. Rather than needing to achieve five successes to offset each setback, you will be able to bounce back immediately and move on. Successes, too, will be more vibrant, and you will no longer pursue them in an attempt to compensate for a deficit in the sense of self-worth you create when you mistakenly turn the simplistic “I failed” into “I am a failure.”