I finished a new project a couple of days ago.
And it failed.
I'm only refraining from explicitly telling you what the project was because I'm still working on it with partners who might not want the details on the Internet.
When I came home and sat on my couch to reflect on why the project didn’t succeed, I felt disappointed in my inability to execute like the women I admire (I’m talking about the Myleik Teeles and Marie Forleos of the world). An hour later though, I was well on my way to recovery. Two hours later, I had taken action towards fixing the problem and I had started writing this blog post.
Did you hear that? It took me a total of two hours to move from disappointment to working on my next best move. I tell you that because this kind of efficient recovery is new to me and it’s worth sharing what has changed in how I deal with failure.
I had sat on this very same couch for years processing my many failures in very different ways. I sat on the right hand corner when I was writing my entrance essay to Hopkins. And I cried as wrote and rewrote each draft, 100% sure that I'd never get accepted and that I'd be a failure because of it (side note lesson there: my success was never tied to any one thing, Hopkins or otherwise). That many tears over anticipated failure sounds ridiculous in retrospect but that should tell you how scared I was of failing, and how high I had made the stakes in my mind.
I sat on that same corner of the couch a year before that, when I called my friend Morgan in frustration at my continued weight loss failure.
And more recently, this couch was where I hugged my last boyfriend goodbye. A failed relationship I wasn't sure how to recover from.
In each of those cases, I never walked away feeling peaceful about the outcome of my efforts. But I knew I had to process my failures effectively because I wasn’t going to stop striving for greatness. Of course I could shield myself from the sting of failing by not trying, but that would mean I wasn’t expanding.
I had to find a way to make peace with failing.
The reason I processed my most recent failure well was because I had gradually learned to take specific actions when things didn't work out as planned.
Here are the five things I do to recover quickly:
1. I let myself sit and feel the sting. This is related to last week's post on mindfulness. Feeling the sting means finding a quiet space and feeling the sensation of my emotions in my body. I usually feel it in my chest or stomach. I pay attention to what I'm thinking, knowing that recurring thoughts of doubt about the future are normal. That is what it means to sit and feel the sting. In the past, I thought I was allowing myself to do that but really, I was hiding from it behind Netflix binging, shopping, or food. These are no longer options for me. At some point, I decided that just dealing with the issue directly makes life easier the long run.
2. I am acutely aware of the fact that this failure is telling me I need to either course-correct or project-correct. By that, I mean that I give myself the space to think through whether the project didn't work because it is not what I am truly supposed to be doing (this would lead to correcting the course or path I am following), or whether it didn't work for some project related reason, like poor execution (this leads to correcting specific aspects of the project the next time we execute).
3. I take one small action step towards fixing the problem. In my most recent failure, I emailed my teammate and set up a time to discuss how we can make the project a success. Please note that I didn't say I worked on fixing the entire problem right then and there, because it takes time to recalibrate and approach the problem with a new perspective.
4. I let each failure be exactly what it is; an event that did not yield expected (or better) results. It is not an indication of who I am as a person or my life's trajectory. This is the hardest one to practice consistently because it's hard to not attach your failures to your identity. When I'm having a particularly hard time detaching, I study other people's success stories and I often see the same pattern – they tried lots of things and failed at some and succeeded at others. Then they used what they learned in each step of their journey to build their character and their life. This is a reminder that our life is the sum of our experiences, not our failures alone. I recently watched Robert Greene’s Ted Talk about how he became a best selling author and internationally acclaimed consultant. Watch it when you need a reminder.
5. I do my work. The alternative here is to play victim, which is nice because it lets us get away from our responsibilities. But I am not interested in anything that doesn't directly feed into my wealth, health and happiness so I'm not falling for the part of me that would rather take a nap when I know there is a lot more to be done.
Now I’d love to hear from you, what have you learned about effectively handling failure? Comment below or tweet me and share your process.