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Living in Resilience by Learning From Failure

by Tony de Gouveia

In my previous article we looked at how to promote Resilience amongst women. In this edition we look at the relationship between Resilience and Failure.

It was hugely significant that the April 2011 edition of the prestigious 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 events rich with lessons and opportunities to learn and move on. This is reflective of a growing focus on resilience and related concepts within a field known as Positive Psychology.

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.

Many of us, even successful people, struggle with negative Self Talk (Inner Critic) that tells us that we are not smart enough, talented enough, attractive and sexy enough, etc. This negative Self Talk holds us hostage, inhibits our expression, creates fear and anxiety, and sometimes blocks our most creative output. It 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.

The good news is that positive psychology is giving serious attention to resilience as a field of study. We know 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.

Peter Guber who in the 1970’s made a film on Mohamed Ali(the Greatest) referred to a story Ali told him. He talked about a fight he was in where he was knocked down—“flat on my butt,” he said. “And I thought, OK. What’s next?” He got up and won the fight. When you don’t get up, he realized, there’s no way you can win. In fact, getting knocked down is part of being in the business. It’s inevitable. But once you know you can get up, no matter what, you become stronger and resilient.

Interestingly, 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 trainer, working with MBA students, supervisors and managers , I have noted the pressure people impose on themselves to know their new job tasks before it is possible (In fact this is one of the weaknesses of applying Affirmative Action inappropriately). Learning takes time. Learning involves metabolising new information. We cannot be right at every opportunity but that does not doom us to failure, just to being human.

History reminds us about the successes that have accompanied times of failure.

A recent book by John C Maxwell called Failing Forward has chronicled some of these stories in the form of interesting life lessons about failure. One of the most poignant for me was the fact that the Wright brothers should not have been the first to achieve flight in an aeroplane. Dr Samuel P Langley and his pilot Engineer Charles Manley were commissioned to do so but gave up after two attempts. The rest is history...

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.”

So it is encouraging for us to read in the Harvard Business Review that we need to revisit the “F” word, “Failure,” and stop making ‘mistake’ a dirty word. We would each do well to dispute our Negative Self Talk and 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 positive Self Talk and the voice of an encouraging Inner Coach that has resilience as its name.

Acknowledgements: Beth Weinstock PhD

Tony de Gouveia is a Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice at the
Akeso Clinic in Alberton
(011) 907-2811/ 082 4565046

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