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03 July, 2008

It's all about learning experiences

...So don't be so hard on yourself

Secretly we all harbor thoughts of failure, some stretching as far back as childhood. Ideally, we learn from the times when we have fallen short. There are cases, however, when we sustain wounds that tend to open when we are most vulnerable. A recent informal survey of friends and family revealed a general distaste for the word "failure", some going so far as to suggest that it be dropped completely from our vocabularies. Certainly failure represents our worst fears and is about as negative as you can get in terms of perception.

We do not have to like the word failure and all that it entails but care should be taken in closing the mind to it. One respondent put it this way: "I used to spend a lot of time avoiding failure. The good news was that I was able to achieve success at the end of the day. The bad news was that it was having a definite negative impact on my life. All effort to avoid failure caused me to be overly cautious and hesitant, even to the point of avoiding taking risks. Eventually I came to see failure as a form of education and the only real failure is if I stop trying."

A common first reaction to failure is to blame anyone and anything but ourselves. But if we perceive others are to blame then there is nothing we can do to correct the problem. We cannot change people's personalities, neither can they change ours. In assuming responsibility for the situation, however, we can analyze what went wrong and take corrective action. This approach is nothing more than the art of rebounding from failure. A single mother of two teenage daughters had this to say on the subject:

"The most important thing I have learned about failure is to take responsibility for it. I didn't for a long time -- blaming others was easier. In discussing this whole issue with my daughters the other day they said that they know I feel regret over failures in my life, but they don't see it that way. In fact they revealed admiration for how I have handled things. I'm so impressed with their ability to understand and this is the single factor that now helps me get up in the morning."

Her experience was not unlike that of several others who agree that failure can simply be a matter of how one looks at a particular situation. A person who is only interested in the final outcome of an undertaking might well consider it to be a failure if the core issue was not resolved or a specific need not met.

"I can be very hard on myself, expecting perfection in most everything I do," said another young mother who has successfully combined professional life with responsibilities of homemaking for a family of five. "I look forward to a great end result, often rushing through a task just trying to get there. The fact that perfection, or desired outcome, is not always what I get does not necessarily discourage me because I see it as a learning experience. If you think about what it takes to achieve a successful end result -- opportunity, knowledge, skill, a little luck -- it is really amazing that any of us ever accomplish anything. I believe that if you gain something in any of these areas while working toward a goal, even if it's knowing your limits, the experience was not a failure."

She does not view "roads not traveled or doors not open" as failures because she does not believe she would be any happier in life had things gone differently. "It's both our successes and failures that make us who we are, but it's also in those not so great experiences that we learn the most about ourselves and grow stronger because of them," she adds philosophically.

From a very early age we are conditioned to scorn failure, the grading procedure in many of our school systems being the main culprit.-- E for excellent, S for satisfactory, F for failure. The stigma of failure never completely leaves the mind of an impressionable young person and often leads to a deeply rooted complex in adulthood.

A 19-year-old university student refers to the "literal failure" of a test or class. "I think that there are two types of failure situations -- one involving a learning experience and the other a failure in the true sense of the word," she explained. "Sadly, I am experiencing a lot of the latter where I have not studied for a test and did not learn a lesson from the experience, repeating the same mistake over and over again. That is true failure, in my mind. Admittedly, my understanding of this concept is only a superficial one but at least I know what it is that I have to try to swing against in the near future."

Unrealized career remains an issue for her

A successful corporate banker, now retired, is one who truly dislikes the F-word, preferring instead "disappointment" because it seems a little less harsh. She alludes to the flip side being "for those who possess an abundance of self-confidence where the inner voice refuses to accept that they could, or might, fail." Here's her story.

"My dream was always to be a nurse. It didn't happen for various reasons. My substitute career was banking which took me further than I ever expected but down deep it was never what I wanted. Consequently I turned down some opportunities to aspire to higher positions. Why? Was I angry with myself? Inwardly annoyed that I wasn't doing what I wanted? Afraid that I didn't really have the know-how to play in the corporate world? Afraid of failure? Ah, finally, confession that the word does exist in my world."

In retirement she is finally in a hospital environment as a one-day-a-week volunteer which is a far lesser role than she originally planned for herself. But with that limited exposure she now sees the potential that existed for her in the health care field. "I could have broadened my dream and been a doctor, a specialist or researcher," she says in retrospection.

"My inner regret/slash failure is that I didn't just suck it up and push myself through. How true it is that with age comes not only wisdom but sometimes the confidence we lacked when younger. So, it is best for me to not reflect on the 'what ifs' but rather accept 'what was (is)' and thank God that I have succeeded just a little..."

Then we have a respondent who refuses altogether to consider the possibility of failure. "Remaining positive is very important in my line of work. I try very hard to eliminate anything negative from my day-to-day functions and that includes any thoughts of failure. Success is the 'buy' word," the career salesman adds with a laugh that fails to mask completely his commitment to the oft recited play on words. Rejection, or failure to close a sale, rolls off a bonifide salesperson like water off a duck's back.

Not too surprisingly, 50 per cent of those contacted for this article chose not to comment. It is not easy to open up about failure. For some it is simply not a comfortable subject. Personally, I confess to being failure conscious and living in the past a little more than may be in my best interest. I have a habit of going to bed at night replaying the "what if" reel of disappointment and failure in my life. Just recently I have taken to repeating to myself a line from the movie Sybil: "The past is the present if you hold on to it." This seeems to help me return to the reality of where I am now in life and being thankful for how I got here.

There is a lot to be said for the idea of letting go. Pining over the past is really an exercise in futility, especially when it has so little to offer. If you examine your situation carefully and objectively, you will realize that certain things have to happen, generally for the better. Regardless of how we look at failure, it is a fact of life and the sooner we rationalize it the better it is for us. It is even better when, in turn, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get on with reclaiming our life and all that it has to offer.

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