THE BLOG

Learning From Failure and Living in Resilience

11/03/2011 10:28 am ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

As a leadership development coach, I was thrilled when I noticed that April's Harvard Business Review was entirely devoted to the topic of failure -- how to understand it, learn from it, and recover from it. It spoke about resilience -- the capacity to rebound from failures and disappointments -- and the importance of speaking to ourselves from a positive attitude that interprets experience as rich with lessons and opportunities to learn and move on.

Many of us, even very successful people, struggle with a harsh Inner Critic that tells us that we are not smart enough, talented enough, attractive enough, etc. The Inner Critic holds us hostage, inhibits our expression, creates fear and anxiety, and sometimes blocks our most creative output. The Inner Critic is an internal force that blocks the development of resilience by assuming and predicting bad outcomes. It distorts our perception of neutral situations by projecting a negative outlook.

An example from my leadership development work is as follows: A woman I coach believes that a mistake she made years ago is on the mind of everyone she currently works and that they have her history in mind when she speaks up in a meeting. She remains self-conscious and nervous when offering her ideas, ideas that have been highly valued in her organization. Her negative self talk ignores the fact that many of the folks she is talking to are new to the team and don't know her history, and while it is vaguely possible that the old timers on the job remember, it is very unlikely that they are discarding her current contributions because of an old misjudgment. My client's fears were not realistic, but neither is the Inner Critic and it stops us from living in resilience.

The good news is that positive psychology is giving serious attention to resilience as a field of study. Cognitive psychology has long informed us that what we say to ourselves, and what we think, determines a lot about how we feel. Now, the new brain science has provided another perspective on the power of what we say in our heads. It tells us that our mind makes up a story about our experience that we tell ourselves over and over again. These narratives are made of past associative memory and current life circumstances, and how we interpret them. If we constantly interpret our world as a glass half empty, we will likely keep experiencing it that way.

Resilience is about attending to the positive possibilities, about the ability to move on from what hasn't worked, staying aware of our individual gifts, talents and strengths, and encouraging ourselves to keep moving forward.

When we think about child development, we take resilience for granted. We readily accept that as kids grow they learn by making mistakes and practicing over and over again -- everything from learning to walk, ride a bike and learning to read. However, as adults we cringe at the thought of making mistakes when we are challenged with new material to master. We want to be seen as always competent, even before it is practical. As a coach, working with many people promoted into new positions of authority and responsibility, I see the pressure people impose on themselves to know their new job tasks before it is possible. Learning takes time. Learning involves metabolizing new information. We cannot be right at every opportunity and that does not doom us to failure, but to just being human.

History lends a reminder about the successes that have accompanied times of failure. Walt Disney was initially fired from a newspaper job for his lack of creativity and went bankrupt several times before he created Disney Land. Einstein had a hard time learning to read and was seen as not too bright by many of his early teachers. Thomas Edison, who was unsuccessful in his initial numerous experiments to improve the light bulb is quoted to have said, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work." Kathryn Stockett, bestselling author of The Help, was turned down 60 times before she finally got published. She said, "The point is, I can't tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected...."

So it is a great relief to read in the Harvard Business Review that we need to revisit the "F" word, "Failure," and stop making 'mistake' a dirty word. We each do well to tell our Inner Critic to butt out -- that it is not helpful, but hurtful, to be in its negative grip. Good outcomes result, instead, from telling ourselves to move on from momentary mistakes, that we can be, and be seen, as competent without being perfect, and that moving forward with our strengths is the path towards success and satisfaction. Let's remember that the shortest distance between our good intentions and the positive outcomes we want is the voice of an encouraging Inner Coach that has resilience as its name.