How to best react to failure

dumboo asks: What should be our reaction if we fail in achieving something?

Hi dumboo –

There are lots and lots of ways to react when one fails at something.  A few I see often are “Oh No!  I give up!  This is impossible!” and “I don’t believe this!” and “God hates me!” and “I suck!” and “Well I know not to try that again!”

Some others aren’t so verbal.  They might involve bursting into tears, banging one’s head against a wall, or kicking someone.

Another is to immediately try doing what failed another time, right away, in just the same way.

Do you see what all of these have in common?  They are just what you asked about – reactions.  None of them involve the best thing one can do when they fail at something, which is to THINK.  To think about what they did, to think about why it might have failed (note I said “it” might have failed – what they did – which is not quite the same as saying “they” failed), and what might be a better way to try to accomplish the same thing.

Now sometimes, that last reaction is the completely appropriate thing to do.  When you learned to walk upright, you did it by trying it over and over and over.  You didn’t try once, then think about it for an hour, then try again – you wouldn’t have gotten walking till you were ten years old if you’d worked that way.  But most things you try to do, especially once you’re older, really benefit from doing that.

Handsome loves to talk about how, when he was training me, I would always fall asleep after each training session.  I’d sleep very hard, and he’d see my eyes moving around behind my eyelids, and my face twitching – it was clear that my brain was trying to put together the strange information I’d been given.  It sounds simple now, but for that puppy brain, the idea that when he said the word “Sit” and I put my butt down on the ground, I’d get a treat, but when I did anything else he’d yell “No!” – took me a while to figure out.  Eventually I got to where I only failed at that trick when I had good reason to (such as when someone I really wanted to jump on was walking up to me).

Well, that’s what should happen when you fail at something.  Try to figure out what happened.  Use that brain of yours (SO much bigger than mine!), and analyze what went wrong.

Now once you do that, there are then many possibilities.  Perhaps it’s a situation like learning to walk, where you just need to keep trying.  For example, let’s say you’re trying to run a five-minute mile.  You’ve tried it thirty times and you’re still coming in at 5:15.  Well, you probably just need to keep practicing, till you make the better time you want.

But what if you’re trying to do a math problem and you keep getting it wrong?  Well, it’s worth stepping back and looking at how you’re doing it, and seeing where your method is off.  There’s no point in trying it the same way over and over.

And then there are tougher situations, like if you’re trying to get a date, and every time you ask someone out, they say no.  Are you doing something wrong?  Are you asking out the wrong people?  Are you doing it at the wrong time or place?  I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about before you try again (since “no” always feels kinda lousy).

And then there are the even tougher ones.  The situations where you need to think about whether you should even bother continuing to try.  For example, maybe you want to be a professional basketball player, but both your parents are five feet tall, and all signs point to your growing to the same height.  Well, no matter how much you practice, how great your skills, how much heart you put into it, it’s probably impossible for you to get into that career.  So probably it would be best for you to give up on that dream, and find something else to do with that time and effort (maybe you could work for a basketball team in another way, or succeed in another sport).

Now none of these are instant reactions.  Each involves thought and looking over the different options.

But your question to me was about reactions.  So how do I think one should react to failing at something?  Any way they want.  Except yelling at, hitting, kicking, or in any other way hurting anyone else out of their frustration.

Especially their dog!




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