Failure is a rather big vague word that feels like a dead end. How could we reframe failure to help us open up possibilities?
We often hear people use the word quite loosely to describe themselves as “being a failure” or “failing at something”. “I feel like I failed as a parent.” “I am so worried about failing”.
We are living in a society that labels failure as a bad thing. It lowers our self-esteem by making us feel we have no inherent value, decreases our self-confidence by making us doubt that we have the skills to achieve what we want and this culminates in a drop in our self-efficacy which leads to ‘learned hopelessness’. There is just no point trying anymore.
How we perceive failure and success has a huge impact on our lives, so I am sharing 4 ideas about how you could reframe failure that will open up possibilities and lead you to success.
1. Whose standards for failure and success are you using
‘Failure’ means I did not get the results that I wanted. ‘Success’ means I got the results that I wanted. How do I know that I got the results that I wanted? There is a standard (or reference point) that we are using consciously or unconsciously to measure failure and success.
Oftentimes, people may find themselves adopting someone else’s standards to determine failure or success. This may have occurred unconsciously. The standards could belong to an authority figure in our lives (a parent, a teacher or a close relative) or the society we live in. People who use someone else’s standards unconsciously may find themselves struggling to live up to that standard. One of the ways we reframe failure is by examining the standard that we have been using to measure it.
Whenever I hear someone tell me that they are failing, I ask the following questions:
- Whose standards are you using? Is it your own standards or someone else’s standards?
- If you are using someone else’s standards, whose is it? Your mom, your boss, or one imposed by the society you live in? How were these standards handed over to you?
- If you are using your own standards, how did you decide on it?
Why is it important to know whose standards we are using? When we realise we have been measuring ourselves using someone else’s standards, we now have a choice to decide if we want to continue using it. We may choose to discard the old standards and adopt a new one of our own choosing. Or we might want to re-calibrate the old standards using a criteria that we created for ourselves.
We do not want to live by someone else’s yardstick of success and failure unless we agree with it or want the same criteria for ourselves. If we use someone’s criteria that we did not choose or agree with, we are less motivated to take action that enable us to succeed. Also, living by someone else’s criteria means we are subject to someone else’s changing goal-posts. It is as good as giving away our personal power to someone else.
What if we want to use someone else’s standards? That is perfectly fine as long as you find out that person’s strategies for success – meaning his or her HOW.
For example, you know of a friend whose criteria for being a good mother is providing her children with home cooked meals every day. She is successful in putting out home-cooked meals every day and juggling a full-time job at the same time. You agree with that criteria and want to use it for yourself who happens to also be holding down a full-time job. Before you start down that path, offer to buy her a cup of coffee, sit down with her and interview her to understand her strategies for meal-planning, recipe sourcing, ordering groceries, meal preparation, cooking etc while juggling a full time job. In Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), we call this Modelling.
If you want to use someone else’ yardstick, you must know his or her HOW. Otherwise, you might find yourself failing against that yardstick.
2. Define your own criteria for failure and success
Again, ‘failure’ means I did not get the results that I wanted. Success means I got the results that I wanted. So what results do I want? The results that we want define our criteria for failure and success.
For example, whenever I bake a chiffon cake, I could define the success criteria to be: ‘the cake has to rise to the expected height described in the recipe’ AND taste excellent. Alternatively, I could define the criteria for success to be: the cake has to rise to the expected height described in the recipe’ OR taste excellent. Depending on my criteria for success or the results that I want, my baking exercise could be a failure or a success.
I have had people say to me that they feel like a failure at being a parent, a spouse, a child or as a boss. When I ask them “what specifically did you fail in?”, they do not have a clear idea. They have a vague and general sense about what they did not do well in or what they did wrong, and had not defined what they wanted to do well in.
In one instance, I had a client tell me that he constantly feels like a failure as a father because he has not been spending enough time with his two young children. ‘Enough’ is another vague (and dirty) word. I asked him what is his criteria for ‘enough’ and he admitted that he had no idea – he just knows that it is not enough. So we worked through this together.
After some reflection, he defined his criteria for ‘enough time’ as being home by 9pm during the weekdays to read a bedtime story to his children and put them to bed. The days he made it home by 9pm, his children would mark on a calendar that he hung on his wall at home with a big green X. The days he returned home after 9pm, his children would mark on the calendar with a big red X. Success is when he has at least 4 green Xs in a week and failure is when he has less than 4 green Xs. In this way, he has a clear visual of when he is failing and when he is succeeding.
Before you label yourself as failing something, be very specific about the results you want and your criteria for success and failure. When you own the yardstick, you are responsible for getting the results you want.
3. Check if you have 100% control over your criteria
If you are do not have 100% control over creating the results you want, you may not get the results that you want. If that is the caset, reframe failure by examining the amount of control you have over your criteria and hence, your success. If the pathway to getting what you want is controlled by someone else, say, your boss or clients, then you might have to tweak your criteria. The more flexible you are, the more possibilities you have.
For example, back to the father who wanted to be home by 9pm to read to his children and put them to bed. His original criteria was – “I want to be home by 7pm every day to have dinner with my children”. Had he stayed with this criteria, he was probably going to fail most of the time. Realistically, his role at work did not let him get off work before 7pm consistently so defining his criteria for failure and success around being home for dinner was effectively setting himself up for failure.
When you are defining your standards for failure and success, you have to take into account what is within your control and what is not within your control. We have to be realistic about our circumstances wherever we are in life.
4. Reframe failure as feedback
I saved the best for the last. This is my favourite reframe failure idea.
Whenever we do not get the results that we want, this is not failure but feedback that we have to do things differently from before. It could be a skills gap, a process gap, or a knowledge gap. We have to examine items #1 to #3 mentioned above. This is a learning experience, an opportunity to iterate, a way of making things better.
Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Not getting the results that we want is a feedback mechanism to try something else. The only time we fail is when we stop trying. If not getting the results we want is creating self-doubt and anxiety, it is part and parcel of our ‘fight or flight’ response (see previous blog-post about this topic).
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