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Three Ways to Transform a Painful Failure Into Success

As Jeff walked out of the interview he forced himself to smile and say a chipper goodbye to the assistant stationed outside the office. It wasn’t until he was in the elevator that he felt his heart start to sink into his belly. The interview was a disaster. By the time he got to his car he was washed in dread. This was his first interview since he was let go from his job of 15 years. The look of cold indifference he saw on the face of his interviewer was stuck in his head and the knot in his belly was now the size of a fist. He knew he had to keep looking for a job but he just didn’t know how he was going to face another interview.

When failures are painful

Was Jeff’s interview a failure? If it was as bad as he thought it was, then yes, it was a failure. A failure is an unsuccessful attempt or an undesired outcome. – and that certainly applies to Jeff’s interview. Like most of us, Jeff was familiar with unsuccessful attempts and outcomes because they are a fairly routine part of life. We bump into failures frequently, like toddlers who are learning to walk. But when the stakes are high for a good outcome, failure doesn’t feel routine; it’s excruciating – like a harsh blow that takes time to recover from. So here are 3 steps that will help you turn a devastating experience around.

  1. Recognize the “critic” and the “blamer”

There are two things that commonly happen after we experience a harsh failure:

1) We become angry and blaming toward ourselves. There is a voice in our head that does a thorough job of listing all the ways we are inept, flawed and deserving of the bad result we got. This voice is called the “inner critic”. It can range from quiet sarcasm to a shrill tantrum.

2) We righteously blame the others involved and hold them responsible for our bad experience. This voice is the “blamer”.

We all have our version of each of these voices. They are very common reactions and it’s important that we recognize them and understand what they are trying to do for us. The critic and blamer are ways we protect ourselves after a shock. They buffer us from the painful emotions that are connected to the situation. The problem is that when we allow them to distract us we get stuck on a never-ending road that leads nowhere, and in the meantime the feelings that can get us on the right road are locked up. We need access to those feelings in order to move forward and onward.

Try to recognize either of these critical voices within yourself and try your best not to indulge them. When you recognize them spinning around in your head, point them out to yourself …” Ah, that’s the critic” or “Oh, there’s the blamer”. Withdraw your energy from them just as you would from anything taking up your valuable time with false, deceptive information. When you don’t feed the critic and blamer with your attention, they lose their juice.

  1. Make room for your feelings

Once the inner critic and blamer quiet down we can get a better handle on what we are really feeling. Try to recognize the feelings that come up. Name them as accurately as you can. Be curious. Is it anger? Embarrassment? Self–doubt? Discouragement? Go easy on yourself – no need to give yourself a bad time for what you’re feeling. Nor is there a need to resist or push your feelings away. Emotions change in their own time just like the weather. Let them be. Don’t try to get rid of them and don’t clutch or inflame your feelings with thoughts that re-enforce them. Just allow them to be your companions for the time being, and go forward with doing whatever you need to do. As you accept your feelings you are also accepting yourself. If you don’t like how a feeling feels, let it be OK that you don’t like it and let it be there anyway. See if you can be the kind of really good friend to yourself who lets you feel whatever you are feeling without trying to fix it or add fuel to it.

  1. Mine for the gold

This is the part where you empower yourself through thinking and action. Research studies show that even though people believe there is much to learn from failure, the majority don’t assess their mistakes or learnings after a failure. Don’t be one of them. “There’s gold in them hills” and riches to mine. Here is what you will need:

  • self-honesty
  • objectivity
  • receptivity to constructive criticism
  • humor – cut yourself some slack
  • an objective and discerning friend to help you with perspective. (optional, but very useful!)

Yes, I know this already sounds challenging. Do the best you can – it’s worth it. I can tell you that it gets easier with practice.

Here’s the process:

  1. Write the story. Write down what happened as if you were writing a story. Stick to the facts – what did you say, hear, see, do and feel? Be careful not to interpret meanings about the actions or words of others – just write what they said and did. If the experience has a strong emotional charge for you, try writing in the 3rd person as though you are telling a story about somebody else.
  2. Get out that fine-tooth comb. Go back over your story and follow the steps below.
  3. Head a piece of paper with “Mistakes”. (I tend to have a friendly attitude toward mistakes – I don’t see mistakes as bad or wrong. If “mistake” is a negative word for you, you may want to use a different heading such as “What I might have done differently”.)
  4. Find the point in your story where things started to go south. Then list every mistake that you think you made after that point.
  5. Head another piece of paper with the word “Hindsight”. For each item on the “Mistake” page, ask yourself two questions:
    1) what motivated me do or say that? (This gets at undermining attitudes you might have and will help you answer the 2nd question.)
    2) In hindsight, what, if anything, might I have said, done or assumed differently? List your answers to both questions.
  6. Review your story again and look for what you did right! We also learn from what we do well. If not much stands out to you, look harder. Were you on time? Eye contact? Friendliness? Were there things you felt like saying but held back and are glad about it? It can be tempting to leave this step out, but don’t. It is too easy to think that things are just one way, all good or all bad, but this is rarely the case. This step gives you a balanced perspective.
  7. Assess your learnings: Here is where the gold is. On your hindsight page put an “OK” next to any item on the list that will be easy for you to do in the future – an easily learned lesson. Put a “C” (for challenge) next to the items on the list that marks an area of challenge for you because of limited knowledge, unlearned/practiced skills or ingrained tendencies such as anxiety or defensiveness. And last, put a “?” next to any item that you have no idea what you could have said, done or assumed differently in order to prevent the mistake. Some items might have both a C and a? next to them. Look at the C’s and ?’s. They will tell you the steps you can take for a better outcome next time.
  8. Take action: Choose which C or ? you want to address first. What resources will you need to inform yourself? Books? The Internet? A class, teacher, or professional? Take action right way – make a phone call, order a book, google a class.

Back to Jeff

Jeff (the name has been changed) came to see me because he was stalled in his job search after that first interview. His self-esteem had taken a huge beating from the interview as well a from his job loss. We learned that the “cold and indifferent “expression that he read on his interviewer’s face reminded him of a past experience when he was humiliated by a person wearing such an expression. Understanding this connection was a huge relief for him. He was then able to separate fact from fiction and discern what obstacles he created for himself in the interview due to lack of preparation and faulty beliefs and assumptions he had about himself. It took a few more interviews for Jeff to regain his confidence, but he indeed did find his stride and is now situated in a job he enjoys.

The Bottom Line

The bad news is that failure hurts. The good news is that if you are feeling the sting of failure it means you are living your life. It is not possible to live a full life and avoid failure. But we can transform the failures that hurt by:

  • Taming the inner critic and quieting the blamer
  • Befriending our feelings and giving them room to be
  • Taking responsibility for our mistakes and allowing them to teach us.

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