In part 1 we looked at making mistakes and the meaning of failure. In this section we will focus on what you can do to manage situations where things don’t work out how you hoped.
“Focus on the possibility of change, to get unstuck and make progress. When you doubt your abilities focus on the belief that you can manage the situation. It is OK not to be perfect.” (Mlodinov, 2018)
How to manage fear of failure and find ways to get on with tasks?
Review and manage expectations of Perfectionism:
Perfectionism triggers further tension as it creates unrealistic expectations, which if not achieved exactly can cause significant distress. The associated negative thinking that comes with unrealistic expectations undermines our hope, and changes our behaviour – we are less likely to make efforts to persevere with our tasks (Ben-Sahar, 2009).
By not giving up when things get difficult, as you face the challenge you give yourself the opportunity to explore ideas and develop your strengths. In fact, this is the point where learning occurs. It is when we have to work at understanding the problem, and by thinking differently that we may see alternative ways of working out a solution.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” (Seneca)
Failure is a process. For example, not getting the grade you wanted in an exam, or not receiving an invitation to go for an interview does not mean there is no option ever again. Instead, review the process you followed, the various steps you took in your revision, or in your preparation for the job applications.
At times, it may be that you missed information, or that you needed to correct a step taken when working on the task. By reflecting on the actions you took, you can identify what needs to be adjusted so that you can deal with the obstacles that prevented you from achieving your goals. Then, make another attempt where you apply the learning from your experience.
“The way you frame the problem has a profound influence on the results of your analysis”” (Mlodinov, 2018)
The way you think about the situation affects the actions you take, and your beliefs about what you can achieve. By viewing mistakes as stepping stones, that can lead to where you want to get to, can help to overcome the feeling of being stuck. This way you can change the perception that the situation is too difficult, which can leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed.
Instead, when setting goals expect a good result, but don’t get attached to the outcome. This creates tension and limits the capacity to be creative, which in turn limits the possibility of finding alternative solutions to the problem or task we are working on.
Develop an optimistic attitude:
Seligman (1998), defines optimism and pessimism as explanatory styles: the way that we think about setbacks and when things go well. Optimism is when we believe that a) a mistake or failure is temporary, b) that we can change it and it is only this one situation, and c) that we can do something about it. Pessimism on the other hand, focuses on viewing mistakes a) as permanent, b) that we cannot do anything about it, c) that it will last forever and that it will undermine everything that we do.
To support the development of an optimistic attitude, it is essential to develop a growth mindset -this means having a flexible perspective that allows us to continue to learn and develop our abilities so that we can reach our potential (Dweck, 2006). Whereas a fixed mindset is when we think our abilities cannot change, and that we are not able to learn or develop further. This attitude prevents us from learning from our mistakes, and can hold us back from taking action, preventing us from making progress. Instead, when we adopt a growth mindset it allows us to work through difficulties to get things done.
It’s all in how you look at it. If you have a fixed view of how things should be you may be disappointed, and frustrated when things don’t work out as you expect them to. On the other hand, adopting a flexible attitude where you consider other options, you put things in perspective, can help to reduce the tension and worry about your ability to achieve goals.
“Tell yourself: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something. There is a difference” (J.C.Maxwell, 2000).
The rate of change is increasing due to advances in technology, and it is having an impact on our ways of working. We need to develop our ability to manage change while maintaining our energy and our health to be productive, and live a meaningful life. Every day we are likely to face situations that we would not have faced ten or even five years ago. To cope with the changes we need to adapt, and to do this we need to change the way we think. This includes how we view mistakes, and how we view ourselves when these happen.
It is essential to learn to become less uncomfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions. We need to develop what Mlodinov (2018) calls elastic thinking, referring to the capacity to let go of the need for certainty, to challenge our ingrained assumptions, be willing to experiment and tolerate failure. By learning to use our imagination, creativity as well as our logical mind, we can learn to solve problems creatively and effectively.
“To raise new questions, a new possibility, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination.” (Albert Einstein)
Tips to build your strength to cope with mistakes, and turn them into learning opportunities:
1.Develop elastic thinking: Adopt a broad perspective, and a flexible attitude. When dealing with adverse situations experiment looking for alternative ways in which you can interpret the event. Aim to understand what went wrong, with a view to find out what you can do different next time. By developing openness and flexibility we can expand our creativity to finding solutions that can help us to manage our tasks, or deal with problems.
2.Become your best friend: we like to be kind and understanding with our friends, we give them the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to keep going. Do the same thing for yourself, be understanding and give yourself the opportunity to learn from the mistake so that you can improve. For example, if in an exam the result was not what you hoped for, consider what happened to understand what you can do different next time. Perhaps the module/topic was more difficult, or there was more material to revise and required more time than you anticipated.
3.Reflect on your experience: by taking time to review the task and what you have done it can help to identify what went wrong to correct and make adjustments. Acknowledge your feelings, without self-criticism, and give yourself some time to recover from the difficulties you are facing.
4.Focus on the process leading up to the mistake: look at each step you took, what can you do differently? Do you need more information? More time? Who can you contact? What can you do differently? And apply your learning next time.
5.Manage stress: identify the triggers that caused you tension, and prevented you from focusing on your tasks effectively. You can do breathing exercises and use mindfulness techniques to relax your muscles and clear your mind. Do some exercise, go for a walk outdoors to absorb natural light and enjoy the green spaces around campus/home/other. You may also feel you want to talk with your house/flatmates, family and friends.
6.Develop an optimistic attitude: although it may be difficult to accept a result you were not expecting, adopt the view that this was a temporary setback, something you can work on and improve next time. Focus on building your confidence by learning to manage worry thoughts, and strengthening your belief in your ability to manage challenges.
In addition, by practising tolerating frustration and disappointment you can build your capacity to respond proactively in challenging situations, rather than delaying taking action which can lead to procrastination and feeling stuck.
7.Keep expectations realistic, and maintain an open mind: while aspiring to high standards, do not make these a “must”. That is, that the result or outcome you hope for has to be achieved or it would be a failure. Instead, use your standards as a direction to guide your actions, and that it keeps you on track. It could be that the outcomes are different to what you expected. It may not be obvious at first, but it could be that there are many ways to achieve your goals.
8.Maintain healthy routines: develop a regular pattern of healthy eating, sleeping and exercising. Taking care of your body nurtures and strengthens your mind.
Bandura, A. (1977) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company
Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.
Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.
Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.
Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.
Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.
Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.