Why failure isn’t

Why failure isn't - Thorny flowersFailure isn’t what you think it is

Failure. So many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. But should we? What if one of the greatest secrets to success turns out to be how we think about and approach failure?

How we interpret failure

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck states that people tend to have one of two different mindsets or ways of interpreting the world. The first is what she calls a “fixed mindset” that assumes what we’ve got in terms of talent, intelligence or creative ability is all we’re ever going to have. Those with a fixed mindset judge success based on how they line up against some set standard. They feel better about themselves if they score well against that standard. They also pursue success or flee from any chance of failing in an effort to prove how innately talented or bright they are. If they get an “A,” that shows how smart they are. If they get a “C,” that affects their very identity as they now feel less smart just because of an average grade.

The alternative is a “growth mindset” that sees everything, including failure, as an opportunity for improvement. An “A” to this group means they studied hard (as opposed to feeling innately intelligent). A “C” means they should study harder next time. In comparing the two mindsets, Dweck writes:

 In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

(Carol Dweck quoted in Maria Popova’s helpful summary of Dweck’s book)

In short, if you see the world through a fixed mindset, failure will always be bad. Growth mindset people, however, will see it as an indicator that you are improving. Two very different approaches to failure.

Other ways to think about failure

If you’re locked into a fixed mindset, I may not convince you failure can be a useful thing. But one way I’ve found to make failure seem less intimidating for anyone is this: redefine, or rather, reframe it.

Failure is a catchall term we use for anything that doesn’t go as planned. But as travelers know, sometimes the best journeys aren’t the ones we set out to take. What one person considers a failure, another sees as a boon. It all comes down to your perspective and that, in turn, is affected by terminology. So let’s explore some other labels or ways to consider failure.

Plot Twists

I love this comment in an email from entrepreneur Danny Iny of Mirasee.com:

…as long as you’re still breathing, it isn’t over. Failure is only failure if it happens in the last chapter – otherwise it’s a plot twist.

So true. If we see the story of our lives as long-form narrative, even some major setbacks are just road bumps that add interest. They are what build character, increase our resilience and make for more compelling lives.

Trying

If you try something and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t necessarily failed. You succeeded in trying. That’s a win. The biggest problem with avoiding failure is that you never try anything new. You take no risks. And if that happens, you never grow or frankly, truly live.

Improvement

How many times have you made a “mistake” only to find that the end result was better than planned? Would you call that a failure? No way. In the Renaissance, artists took the word pentimenti which originally meant regret or remorse and redefined it as meaning a reconsideration or change of thought. In this video from The Getty Museum, you can see how these “reconsiderations” play a big role in improving works of art.

Practice

In learning how to play a musical instrument, you’ll make multiple mistakes. That’s all a part of the process and why you practice. Those mistakes aren’t failures. They are essential steps in building your skills and capabilities.

Awareness

So-called failures make us aware for areas in which we need to improve. Without periodic failures, we can fall into the trap of thinking we’re successful at everything. That not only enhances arrogance, it decreases our desire and ability to learn new things. Again, like not trying or risking, the result is stagnation and complacency.

Experimentation

As Thomas Edison famously noted, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” He saw all that effort as a natural part of the process of eliminating unknown factors. This process includes experimentation (for exploring alternative approaches when you don’t know where to start) and testing to reduce unknown variables (for when you know where to start but not how to proceed). You’ll kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but that’s all part of the process.

Experience

I remember hearing the story of an executive who made a tremendous blunder costing his company something like $20 million. He walked into the CEO’s office and handed in his resignation. The CEO read the letter then tore it up saying, “I just spent $20 million to make you a better leader. Now go back and do your job.” That CEO understood one of the most valuable aspects of so-called failures: If we learn from the experience, we let it change us. We improve. We become wiser.

We learn far more from failures than successes because we pay better attention. And in so doing, we gain hard-won yet invaluable experience. As a result, we do better work not in spite of our failures, but because of them.

The necessity of failure

So I say to you, stop thinking about failure as something to avoid. Use one of the alternative terms above to name it for what it is, a positive, not a negative. A necessity, really, for any creative endeavor.

Consider this: You really can’t create without failure. There are no perfect first drafts. No unreworked canvases. No orchestral arrangements that spring to life in final form. Failure is baked into a process that is less about sparks of genius and more about plain old showing up and doing the work. As author Kevin Ashton notes in How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Neither should you.

Now go back and do your job.

Better.

 

If you haven’t already, check out the other entries in this series: 3 Things You Most Avoid May Be What You Most Need and Why Suffering May Be Better For You Than You Think

 

Why suffering may be better for you than you think

Suffering - tombstonesWhat do we do with suffering?

There are only two things which pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.

This quote from Simone Weil reflects the power of beauty and affliction to move us. Both cut through the superficiality of daily life to help us see what truly matters. Affliction, or suffering, comes in many forms. Some is forced upon us against our will: disease, injustice, oppression. Some is the result of our own mistakes or actions that went awry. Some just happens. The question isn’t why. Get in line to ask that one. Rather, what do we do with suffering?

Developing empathy

One benefit of suffering is that it forges empathy. Or it can. I know that when my wife went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, there were, in general, two types of patients in the chemo ward. The first — and fewest — were those who turned inward and became bitter. The second were those who, despite their own pain, reached out to others. They learned from their own struggle. As a result, they were better able to assist others going through their own dark seasons and hard places.

Suffering and learning

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

This quote from Aeschylus, the originator of literary tragedy, was famously used by Robert Kennedy after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reveals another aspect of suffering: We cannot truly learn without it. We can gather information, facts and data. But deep learning — wisdom — only comes through applying that learning through experience. And experience is not always a gentle teacher. We remember best those moments that were most emotionally charged.

There’s a reason many writers, composers and other artists often create their greatest works during times of heartache. We are more in touch with our emotions and we understand the world in a far richer way out of our suffering than we do during periods of elation. It may not be fun. But great art isn’t about fun. It’s about truth. And for complex reasons, we are able to see what is true and what matters with greater clarity through our pain more than through our pleasure. Or put another way, we’re more motivated to express our deepest thoughts as a way of coming to grips with our suffering. Wisdom and art frequently come at a painful cost. And yet, in hindsight, we tend to find that the suffering was worth it.

The value of struggle

Suffering can foster empathy, increase wisdom and change how we view the world and others. But it can also help us to grow and overcome.

Think of the mountain climber or triathlon winner. Each endures tremendous suffering not because he or she enjoys it, but because the ultimate goal is worth the struggle. In fact, that end result is only attainable because of the struggle. Most of us aren’t the best in our fields because we’re not willing to pay the price. “No pain, no gain” is fine we think, for a middle school PE slogan. But in reality, we dislike the pain so much that we sacrifice the gain. Simply put, greatness doesn’t happen without struggle. And struggle means suffering of some kind.

The idea of “grit” or the ability to endure what is hard in order to achieve something greater has become increasingly popular as a concept these days. But we’re still reticent to practice it. Why?

Because in the US, we have made an idol of comfort and we protect that comfort at all costs. We prefer a numb existence over the effort and discomfort that comes with striving or trying something new. But as all good travelers know, you never grow or truly feel alive inside that fluffy, padded comfort zone. Sure, it may not feel pleasant to step outside it and enter the struggle. But like going to the gym for a hard workout, you don’t focus on what it feels like at the moment. You think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done.

Is it worth it?

Here’s the funny thing. From my own experience and from that of everyone I know who has endured great suffering, the vast majority say the same thing: It was worth it. To anyone who hasn’t been through such pain, that seems unimaginable. And yet, it’s a common response. The suffering has produced hard-earned rewards.

Whether it is increased empathy, wisdom or growth, you do discover — but only by going through it — that suffering has value. Again, you need not pursue affliction for its own sake. Just realize when it finds you that there is blessing on the other side, and rarely in the way you expect.

In the end, the hard won lessons are the ones we end up valuing most.

 

Read the overview on the 3 things you most avoid that may be what you most need if you haven’t already to understand better why suffering, failure and boredom may not be all you thought they were.

 

This is why we travel

Ever wonder why we travel? Or do you need a reason to travel? If so, watch this video from the Copenhagen-based travel site Monmondo.

Powerful video, isn’t it? It makes its point about our commonalities very clear. But it also made me think about some other aspects of travel that may not be as obvious.

Meaning rarely comes without reflection

First, the video is moving in part because it is a highly produced video. All the extraneous elements have been edited out for us as the viewers. But even for the participants, the producers have condensed the meeting of these diverse people and the revelation of the findings into a singular “aha” moment where what was abstract and different now becomes personal all at once. It makes for great drama, but also for strong impact on each person there.

With travel, I don’t get usually get my lessons delivered so neatly. No one with a lovely British accent has ever personally explained the implications of travel (or DNA) to me.

Instead, I tend grow into the awareness of things like similarity and trust over time and on my own. As a result, I’m usually not even aware that as I travel, my perspective has shifted. Thus, unless I make an intentional effort to reflect on what has happened to me on a trip, I often miss the main takeaway. I have the experience, but not the learning.

I need reflection for my trips to have their full value. Either that, or a film crew that can document my entire trip and then show me the meaningful highlights complete with insightful narration and a moving score.

Travel makes the abstract personal

Notice in the video that everyone talked about other countries when asked who they didn’t like so much. By all being in the room together, the revelation through the DNA of family history made the whole concept of “the other” more tangible. But even more important, seeing each other in the same room and hearing each other’s stories made the experience highly personal.

That’s what travel does for me. It eliminates “them” as an abstract concept and makes people into relatable individuals. What once were vague notions about cultures and countries become recognizable faces and relationships that completely shift how we think about a place, region or ethnicity. Personal is powerful. It also is the single biggest factor in overcoming prejudices.

We are more alike than we realize

The overt point of the video was to show how we all share bloodlines from all sorts of other places. But a more subtle point was this: We all have our biases and we all react to the revelation of our linked humanity in the same way. The fact that I tend to react in similar ways as you and millions of others like us reveals even more how much we have in common.

Why we travel

For me — and I suspect for many of you — I travel in part to see what is different, what is unique to a particular place or culture. But as the video reminds me, I also travel to see what is the same, both around me and even, remarkably, within me.

 

5 ways to improve your curiosity

Improve your curiosity: curious cat

Curiosity may have killed the cat (a curious phrase) but here’s the good news: You’re not a cat.

Why improve your curiosity? The long answer

Want to improve your curiosity? You may wonder why you need to.

The long answer is that curiosity is critical to innovation, improved processes and outcomes, greater discoveries, more creativity and better learning.

I heard a recent interview with an educational expert. She was critiquing our reliance on standardized testing. The interviewer eventually asked what alternatives are there to our current standardized tests. The response? Measure the single factor that contributes most to a person’s success in any job: Measure (and apparently there are ways to do this) their desire to learn.

If a person loves to learn she or he can succeed in any field. Why? Because that person will seek out and acquire the knowledge and skills needed. And guess what is at the root of this love of learning? Curiosity.

I told you it was the long answer.

The short answer

The short answer, at least to me, is this: curiosity makes life more interesting and without it, travel simply isn’t as much fun.

For me, curiosity turns everything into a quest to learn more. An exploration. A search of discovery. I find that when I’m curious, just about anything can be interesting. The world becomes one giant mystery just waiting to be solved.

Improve your curiosity in these five ways

So if curiosity is such a good thing, how might you cultivate or improve your curiosity? Try these five exercises:

  1. Learn to create space for curiosity.I’m starting with this important but often overlooked reality: Curiosity requires margins. When I’m stressed and preoccupied, I have zero interest in exploring anything new. Learn to create time just to wander and then to focus on something that interests you.
  2. Be just a little bit curious. Rather than attempting to go through a whole day in a curious mindset, take just 15 minutes to note what normally goes unnoticed. Pay attention to as many things as you can. Scab widely. But then – and this is the key to keep from being overwhelmed with data – go deep. Let go of those things or ideas that don’t grab you. Your goal isn’t just to be aware, but to use that as an entry point to becoming more curious about those things that interest and delight you.
  3. Be curious about what makes you curious. This is a great way to explore your deeper passions and interests, sometimes ones that you may not even be aware of. Your curiosity type will affect this to some degree, but ask yourself why some items, situations, people and thoughts excite you more than others. Pursue those and see where they lead. This is an important form of mindfulness: being aware of what piques your curiosity is something most of us never consider.
  4. Let your curiosity push you further. Don’t stop with your first question. Instead ask, “What’s the more interesting question behind the initial one? What’s the deeper curiosity behind the surface curiosity?”
  5. Make a choice to choose to learn, to explore, to discover. And then do so in a focused way. Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media can make us curious, but too often in only a wandering, even distracted way. I can waste a lot of time in useless curiosity or invest five minutes exploring a subject that deeply satisfies me. It’s an important choice we don’t always realize we have.

I once told a friend I wasn’t a detail-oriented person. He laughed. “We’re all detail-oriented in areas that matter to us.” He was right. Find those areas. Focus on those areas. Be curious about those areas and soon, you’ll not only be asking better questions. You’ll improve your curiosity.

And even more important, you’ll be discovering better answers and being curious as to what lies beyond those.

 

Different types of curiosity

Different types of curiosity: curious cat

They say curiosity killed the cat, but both parties here look equally curious and very much alive.

Different types of curiosity

Did you ever think that there are different types of curiosity? Likely not. Why? Because curiosity is usually more a means than an end. Rarely do we think, “Hmmm. I’m curious about what I’m curious about.” We tend to focus on the object of our curiosity, not curiosity itself.

There are likely as many types of curiosity as there are people. But to help us understand how we can enhance our own curiosity and use it to our advantage, here’s a starting framework on how to think about types of curiosity:

Who?

“Who curiosity” is for people curious about other people. This can range from fans wanting to know more about the secrets of certain celebrities to people who love biographies to highly relational types wanting to keep up with every latest occurrence in the lives of their friends.

What?

People curious about “what” tend to be life-long students, individuals who pursue learning for the sheer joy of it. What happened? What more is there to this? What does this relate to? These are all good “what curiosity” questions. “What if…?”—the mainstay question of innovators—fits in here as well as do a whole range of other “what” questions.

Where?

Ever wonder what’s around the next corner or over the next hill? Are you immediately attracted to maps and curious about what it might be like in other places? “Where curiosity” is the domain of the adventurer, discoverer and explorer, those people who not only want to know where something is, but actually go there and find out for themselves what it is like.

Why?

Issac Asimov once noted that the phrase most commonly used by scientists when making a discovery isn’t “Eureka” but rather, “That’s curious.” Scientists, detectives, philosophers, theologians and four-year-olds tend to have a relentless need to know why things are the way they are and to pursue answers to life’s biggest mysteries.

How?

“How curiosity” is the realm of engineers, tinkerers and inventors. “Why” may be a motivator as well, but the “how curiosity” tribe strives to know how something works and how it might be done better.

When?

Apart from historians, efficiency experts and statisticians, most of the people I know that ask the “when” question aren’t curious; they’re either simply impatient or seated in the back seat of the family car on a long road trip or, likely, both.

Which types of curiosity fit you best?

Next time, we’ll explore why knowing your curiosity type matters, particularly for travel. But for now, just think through the above list and see which one(s) most align with how you think and the questions you ask. We are all curious in all of the above ways – sometimes. But you likely gravitate toward one or two types most of the time. And in the next entry, I’ll explain how knowing this can make a bigger difference in your life than you might imagine.

Doesn’t that make you just a little bit curious?