Dwell Not On Failure, But On Troubleshooting

In order to get to where you want in life, you have to reevaluate your emotional responses to failure and the general lack of results.

As living beings, we all have expectations and wishes of how things should be.

However, just because we wish and work hard towards them doesn't mean that everything will go exactly the way we want them to be.

In fact, you might very well have experiences where your plan and effort fail to yield the outcome you expect to receive, or worse, yield an opposite outcome which puts some aspect of your life in jeopardy.

But then, this is also where things can get a bit more interesting, because the way you respond to these setbacks can very often determine whether or not you're going to ultimately fail — or ultimately succeed.

Failure — An Overview

Every day, we channel our time and resources towards meeting all sorts of expectations.

When these efforts meet our expectations, we either take them for granted or declare them as successes, but when our expectations are not met, we usually regard them as failures.

For example. if you're like most people, some of your failures might include:

  • Failing a course
  • Failing to develop a skill
  • Failing to find a job
  • Failing to meet your performance metrics
  • Losing your significant other
  • Losing access to your bank account
  • Failing to market a product
  • Failing to overcome a disease

Indeed, these failures or lack of results can be anything from academics and finance to health and relationship, and while some of them might be admittedly negligible in terms of consequences, others can actually be a bit more life-threatening.

Either way, one thing that is important about these failures is that these are events that happen to have you in them, rather than a reflection of your own traits.

Because of that, we have to be careful not to confuse failure with other nouns or adjectives pertaining to our own self-worth. In particular, this means that:

You cannot be a failure. You can only fail at things.

Adverse Responses to Failures

Even though our failures or lack of results are often associated with our inability to acquire or preserve things, not all of them are created equal.

For example, you might be quick to dismiss trivial failures when they hit, but for great failures, your first impression might be that of loss, frustration and hopelessness — a sinking "oh no" feeling that something devastating has just happened.

In fact, the intensity of these psychological blows might be such that you are greatly discouraged from moving forward, or worse, you might even throw your hands up and stop trying altogether. For example:

  • You might have always wanted to play violin, but give up learning it altogether because you're never satisfied with your playing.
  • You might have wanted to recover from recent job loss by applying to a few dozens of companies, but are still a bit depressed today because you've been rejected by all of them.
  • You might have always had a desire to keep yourself in good shape, but the thought of your aging body is now keeping you in bed.
  • You might have been a fairly successful person within your circle, but is now succumbing to drinking after your spouse parted way with you.

In light of these, a natural question that often arises would be:

Why is it that for many of us, we are so adversely affected by our failures and lack of results?

Obviously, when it comes to our emotional and physical responses to events, individual mileages can vary, but there is also a key concept that can help explain much of this learned helplessness, and it has to do with the concept of operant conditioning.

More specifically, we're referring to the phenomenon that when we fail, we undergo a process whereby either our rewards are reduced (e.g., less bonus compensation), or our punishments are increased (e.g., repeating a grade).

And just as these processes can happen organically, as in the case of failing to recover from an accident, they can also be orchestrated artificially, as in the case of disciplinary actions against employees.

(in some cases, the conditioning can even happen before our birth. This is true when it comes to our fear of colorful mushrooms or spiders, for instance).

However, we can also make the argument that in our outcome-driven culture, artificial conditionings that penalize failure — be it from schools, parents, work or partners — can also counterproductively increase our adverse response to failures.

If anything, by immediately punishing outcomes that do not meet our needs, we can also be at risk of training ourselves to avoid failures and stop looking for solutions altogether. For example:

  • By demoting employees with unconventional, unpopular mode of thinking, we can reduce our likelihood of solving challenges that require "out-of-the-box" thinking.
  • By shunning open-ended questions altogether, we can discourage ourselves from engaging in the type of deep exploration that's needed for tackling complex topics.

Changing Your Responses to Failures

Learn Helplessness Doesn't Help

Of course, getting emotional on your failures or lack of results is rarely the best course of action. For one, it can sap away your time, attention, energy and mental resources — all of which can put you into a self-sabotaging feedback loop. For example:

  • It can weaken your confidence, your sense of self-worth and your outlook on life.
  • It can compromise your health and immune system.
  • It can prevent you from reaching your goals.
  • It can lessen the amount of time you have to fully enjoy your life (sometimes by decades).

In fact, dwelling extensively on your lack of results can also mislead you into thinking that you're somehow useless or defective, even when your failures are often just a reflection of you tackling harder challenges than others.

So instead of using those resources to your own peril, why not use the same resources to your own benefit — and to overcome all the obstacles along the way?

Shifting Your Perspective

Of course, moving on from failure doesn't mean that you should ignore the initial emotional pain of failure altogether, because if all you do is avoid, then you might never be able to come to terms with your failure to begin with.

Instead, feel it, experience it, understand that it's temporary, and acknowledge that the failure did happen for a reason. Namely:

That the failure didn't happen because of you, but because of the circumstances and actions you were involved in.

In fact, once you've come to the understanding that you don't get what you get because you deserve it, but because of cause and effect, you'll be able to more rationally channel your energy into obsessing about overturning your failures.

After all, if your failures are caused by something, then something else should be able to do just the opposite. If that's the case, then all you have to do is to refine and fine-tune your approach — so as to find a viable way to overcome them.

In other words, all you have to do is to engage in some troubleshooting. And just like puzzle-solving, troubleshooting can be quite interesting too.

So whereas other people might respond to failure by shaking their head and throwing in the towel, for you, every successive lack of results could be just another reason to continue.

And by doing so, you can also turn your emotional response to lack of results from "oh no..." and "it's over..." to "interesting" and "let's do this".

So instead of succumbing to fear and helplessness, why not embrace faith and industriousness? After all, choosing despair and inaction is obviously not going be as helpful as choosing to troubleshoot — and believing that the exit is a few steps away.

Double Down on Troubleshooting

So now that you've decided that you're done with emotional pain and self-sabotage, what are the things you can do to begin to shift from dwelling on failures to obsessing about troubleshooting?

For a start, the fact that your outcome fails to meet your expectation is already an indication that something is not working. Because of that, a natural question to ask in this case would be:

"Why didn't it work?"

Of course, here it'd be tempting to simply find a quick, half-baked answer and move on from there, but if you do, you'd be more likely to identify the symptoms — rather than the root causes of your failure.

Instead, what you want to do is to ask 'why' repeatedly after each answer, until you've reached a final answer such that if resolved, would eliminate the failure altogether.

For example, if you're frustrated about being tired every day, then one thing you can do is to simply carry out this "iterated why method" as follows:

  • "Why do I feel so tired?" → "Because my body's building up more stress before it has time to relax."
  • "Why is my body building up more stress before it has time to relax?" → "Because I work too hard and sleep too little."
  • "Why do I work too hard and sleep too little?" → "Because I have too many things in my to-do list and I can't fall asleep easily."
  • "Why do I have too many things in my to-do list and I can't fall asleep easily?" → "Because I'm taking on tasks from many people and my neighbors are noisy."

In some instances, you might notice that your lack of results can be traced back to one or more causes and factors. In which case, it's often a good idea to identify the most salient ones, so that you can begin to devise strategies to counter them.

For example, if you're convinced that your tiredness really comes down to you taking tasks from too many people and your neighbors being too noisy, then some of the actions you can take to counter these might include, among others:

  • Redelegating the tasks so as to focus on the essential ones
  • Asking friends to help you with some of the key tasks
  • Negotiating with your neighbors so as to eliminate the noise problem
  • Wearing earmuffs while you sleep and while you're at work

As you can see, lack of results in general often just means that a set of things is missing from your strategy. So as long as you can identify that set of things and take some valid actions to counter it, the result will usually come by before you know it.

Learn From a Baby

If you're reading this, chances are, you're someone who has mastered walking, and you've done it ever since you were a baby.

But then, that doesn't mean that it was by any means easy when you were still learning. In fact, if you've ever watched babies trying to walk, you might have also witnessed how they were also prone to falling constantly.

So why is it that despite the falling and the lack of musculature to support their body, they continue to be so fixated on walking? Here, several explanations may indeed be possible, but some of the prominent reasons might include the following:

  • They find walking rather exciting.
  • They want to be able to move faster with more efficiency.
  • They're constantly surrounded with people who've done it.
  • They believe that they are just a few steps from it.

In other words, instead of choosing to focus on the pain of falling, they choose to focus on the reward of walking — and their presumed proximity to it.

But then, if they can choose to think and act that way, then why can't you? After all, you don't have to blatantly avoid your failures or lack of results, nor do you have to choose to emotionally sabotage yourself.

Instead, you can choose to engineer your mind and body to focus on the rewards of the outcome you desire, to be motivated by your lack of results, and to be constantly on the lookout for ways to overcome your obstacles. In particular:

If an outcome is important to you, don't stop trying because you are not seeing any result. Instead, keep moving because you may be just a few steps away.

In fact, you can even do it every day from now on, by simply rehearsing the outcome you want in your mind, and by redirecting your thought and actions from failure-dwelling to troubleshooting.

And as you do, you'll be able to turn your pain into motivation, your pessimism into optimism, your helplessness into industrialness, and finally, your failures into results.

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