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How to handle failures (Redefining Success – Part 3)

The field of Civil Engineering is an interesting one. Before studying the design of any structural component, one has to first study the different modes by which the structure might fail. Once the failure modes are learned, structural engineers design the structure to avoid such failures. We need to adopt the same strategy in our life too. We’ve to learn not only from our failures but also from others’ failures. Much more important than learning from failure is knowing how to handle failure.

We can see many teenagers and youngsters trying to end their life after confronting a setback in their life. It’s more important to teach in schools, the psychological things more than the technical things. But sadly, none of the schools focus on them.

So in this article, we’re going to learn how to handle failures and learn from them.

The man who took failure personally

This is a heart-wrenching incident about a man who killed his wife, three children, his mother-in-law, and finally himself in Sorrento Pointe, California. What made him commit this fierce act? What was he going through?

He was born and brought up in India. He excelled in studies from a younger age and was graduated from the famous Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (now Chennai). Then, he went to California to pursue his MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. Having excelled in studies, his career was no different. He secured a job at the Sony Pictures. The jobs that he took thereafter were high-level executive jobs. He had luxurious houses, cars, and all amenities.

Everything was going fine. And then came the recession period. People started losing their jobs and so did he. Then, he sold his house at a reasonable profit and survived using it. But there was no income. He later went on debt due to the decrease in the price of his shares in the stock market. He was unable to cope with this circumstance which made him commit such an act.

Later investigations with the people in his close circle revealed that he cared a lot for his family and seeing them suffer pressurized him. They say, “he lost his perspective and made his violent act look justifiable.” His colleagues saw him as a gentle, friendly, and charismatic person.

Being a person who only saw success from his very younger age, he was unable to handle failure. An LAPD official says, “He thought his life circumstances were because he was a failure.”

How to cope with failure?

This is easier said than done. I can imagine myself in his shoes. If I were in his circumstance, even I would’ve wanted to do the same. Having given all your energy and effort and seeing failure at the end is the most uncomfortable thing. But once again, it’s all about perspective.

If we failed in something, instead of thinking that our life is a failure, we’ve to adopt a mindset that failure is just a part of accomplishing great things.

When things are against us, it’s easy for us to lose hope. Failures blur our vision on the solution and magnify our vision on the problem. Scientists, when they fail in their experiment, don’t consider themself a failure. It’s just a data point. That is, if I do something this way then it won’t work. So I’ve to rethink the way I do this. That’s how they treat failed experiments.

I want young people to understand how to manage failure. Because, any task you do, you’ve to come across a problem (failure). The problem shouldn’t become the captain of the individual or the project chief. The project chief should become the captain of the problem and defeat the problem and succeed.

APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India who inspired millions of youngsters through his speeches

I feel really grateful to have walked in the land where this great man was born. As he said, let’s learn how to handle failures.

The three step process for learning from failure

Step 1: Accept

Most of the frustration that results from failure is because you were not able to accept the fact that you’ve failed. The first place to start in handling failure is simply to accept that you’ve failed. You might’ve put all your hard work and energy into something and ended up not getting the result that you wanted. But you simply have to accept that things don’t go your way sometimes. Take responsibility for your failure.

Step 2. Analyse the situation

Next, you need to analyze what went wrong. Here’s where James Clear’s article on failure will help you. He analyzed different stages of failures. And based on that, you can decide whether to work on the same project (or career) with perseverance or move on to the next one. It’s a huge article. Let me break it down for you.

  • Ask yourself whether your failure was because of the failure in your vision, or failure in your strategy, or failure in your execution.
  • Failure of vision (Why am I doing this?): You decide to work on the wrong project (or career) and ended up losing.
  • Failure of strategy (What am I doing?): You’re working on the right thing but your plan to reach the goal is incorrect and caused the failure.
  • Failure of execution (How am I doing?): You have a concrete plan to reach the right goal but your way of doing things sucks.

Failure of Vision

In one of my previous articles, I said that when you decide to work on something, passion automatically shows up. But in some cases, even after working several months on a project or a career if you haven’t found any initial success and also if you still feel like it’s not the one that you’re destined for, then it’s the failure of vision. It means you’ve to find some other meaningful work that appeals to you.

Failure of Strategy

We know that before becoming the President of the United States, Donald Trump was a businessman. During his career as a businessman, many of his business ventures failed not because of vision but because of his strategy.

To quote an example, in 1988 Trump bought Eastern Air Shuttle, an airline company operating short-distance flights, for $365 million. After the company came under his belt, Trump decided to add more luxuries to the flight such as maple-wood veneers to the floors, gold-plated bathroom features, etc. The price of the ticket sky-rocketed as a result.

Since it was only a short distance flight, customers were not interested to pay such a hefty amount. Ultimately, the airlines never made any profit and he defaulted on his loans.

This is a good example of the failure of strategy. Trump’s vision might’ve been to increase his revenue from the flights. The strategy that he adopted to reach his vision was a blunder.

Failure of Execution

In a survey of senior executives of 197 companies, the respondents said that their company achieved only 63% of the expected results on their strategic plans. That is, there’s a gap between expected performance and actual performance, which is simply because of failure of execution. James Clear explains this as the failure of tactics.

You do something that you thought was the best way to do it. But there’s always a better way to do it. The only way to know what’s the better way is to keep exploring and updating your ideas based on the current trend and proper communication.

For example, let’s say you’ve to make 50 sales in a month. But every month, you keep missing the target. On the other hand, your colleague achieves his target so easily with a few days to spare. What’s the difference? It’s the way he executes his sales.

Now you have two options. One, to ask him how he was able to do it. What are his tactics? Second, updating your knowledge on closing a sale by reading related to your area. Remember that enough practices always improve your execution.

Step 3: See what’s next

Once you’ve got an idea of what caused the failure, you can now decide whether to change your vision, or your strategy, or your execution. This’s where miracles happen. Now, when you make your next move, it’ll be much better than the previous one because all the experiences you’ve gathered on your previous failures are going to help you.

This is the purpose of failure. They’re here to teach you something that you’ve missed before. If you treat failure like a friend who’s trying to teach you something, then the way you deal with it changes. You won’t be upset anymore about failure. You’ll just try to learn what it’s trying to teach you.

Summing Up

When it comes to handling failures, patience is the key. Don’t get frustrated when you fail at something. Based on the analysis, decide whether to work on the same project or to move on to the next one. If it’s just a failure in the strategy, try to change the strategy and not the vision. Only when you think that your vision is a failure that you should move on to the next one. Otherwise, stick with the same project and explore different ways of doing and planning things. I hope this article gives you at least a gist of what to do when you confront a setback in your life.

FOOTNOTES

The incident of the man who killed his family and himself deeply moved me. It was this incident that compelled me to write on how we should handle failures. It’s an important trait that everyone should develop.

I think it was during most respected Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam sir’s birthday that I came across his top 10 rules for success compiled by the YouTuber, Evan Carmichael. I was fascinated to see people around the world following Abdul Kalam sir’s philosophies. You can see this compilation here.

I feel lucky to have slipped into one of the articles written by James Clear on failures. He pin-pointed every stage of failure that I mentioned above with beautiful examples. There’s a lot more to learn from his article which you should read.

Donald Trump’s failure on making it big on his airlines venture made the headlines in 1988.

Management Consulting firm Marakon Associates and the Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed senior executives.

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