This whole post could be summed up neatly by any number of motivational slogans/cliché’s/things your Grandma told you. Here’s a few.
* If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
* 80% of success is showing up.
* Never, never, never give up.
* Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.
* You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
These quotes sound great, and if you’re a sucker for a motivational slogan like me, then they can help you to keep going when you feel like giving up. They work to motivate us, for a while at least.
The trouble is that most of us have a set point where we stop listening to this kind of stuff. After a certain number of failures, you decide that the problem isn’t with the idea or the goal, or the angle, but that it’s with you. You give up what you’re doing not because you’ve realised there’s a better way or a deeper calling for your life, but because you think the world is saying to you, ‘Just stop already. You’ll never be good enough!’
As children, we’re encouraged to try anything we’re interested in. No-one expects us to be good at it, and failure is expected – it’s still termed learning at that point. But as we grow up, a twisted message begins to take hold: if you’re not good at something, you should stop, even if you like it.
We’re taught that failure means you should stop pursuing your goal, rather than just changing the approach you’ve been using. I think this comes from well meaning adults who don’t want to see a child hurt or in pain – whether that’s being teased, or the pain of trying and failing. So we are gently guided away from what we’re ‘not good at’ or what won’t bring in a decent income or what might get us ridiculed by others.
By the time we’re grown-ups, we’re well acquainted with the idea that if something is painful, we shouldn’t pursue it. This works well for some areas of our lives (attempting advanced yoga poses, leaving a relationship where the other person puts you down all the time) but along the way, this idea can kill our enthusiasm for life, our passion, and our sense of meaning.
If you are learning and growing and changing, there is pain involved. The effort of learning new information. The disappointment of launching an online business and no one buying anything. Speaking up in a meeting and being shut down. Going on date after date with people who ‘just want to be friends’. Even muscle growth is the tearing apart and rebuilding of the tissue. Ouch! You feel this pain, and see it as a reason to stop.
The problem with this? It renders you powerless. If you let feelings, the external world, other people’s opinions, or ‘success’ define whether or not you pursue something, then you are completely at the mercy of these forces.
That sense of powerlessness is toxic. When it takes over, it manifests as anxiety, depression and stress.
Anxiety: I’m not strong enough to handle pain (e.g. social rejection, failure, intense feelings). I’m so weak I have to avoid that situation or else be really really scared the whole time I’m in that situation.
Depression: Nothing I do turns out well so why bother trying again?
Stress: I don’t have the resources/ skills to cope with this situation. When I fail, I won’t be able to survive the outcome.
How do you avoid being overwhelmed by the pain that you will have to go through when you try something and fail? Well, the motivation slogans on the fridge might help... but here's some other ideas.
Successful People Know Their ‘Why’
The first key to being able to keep going in the face of failure and pain is to believe strongly in what you are doing rather than only believing in it if you get any ‘success’ from your actions. You get to this point by defining what is really important to you in life (your values) and then pursuing those.
There are certain groups in society who are really good at this. Creative people can work their whole lives on their art, long hours, no week-ends, without recognition from others or financial compensation for that. They can do that because they love their art. Because creativity is seen as a calling, and to be part of it, to be able to be a person who creates, is seen as worth it in and of itself.
People who are strongly religious fall into this category too. People throughout history have been persecuted for their faith, but refuse to give it up. Monks and nuns forgo relationships, money, and many physical comforts to pursue their ideology. Again, the idea is that the pursuit of God is in itself enough of a reward, a reward good enough that it’s worth whatever pain needs to be endured in order to pursue it.
Elite athletes and anyone at the top of their field has this attitude. That they will do whatever it takes –stay longer, train harder, sleep less, risk more – to pursue what matters to them. They don’t see pain or failure as a sign that says stop: they see it as a sign that says ‘put even more into this.’
And what do you do if you’re not one of those people? What if you’re not a ‘creative person’ or an ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘faithful’?
If you’re none of those, then you need to do the work to find the kind of person you are. Either you need to find out what matters to you, or you acknowledge that you already know what matters to you, you’ve just never spoken up about it. It’s actually okay to stand up and say ‘I am a creative person’ even if no one around you has ever said that or believed in that for you.
I can’t really think of anything more important in life than to find at least one thing that you’re willing to chase, no matter if you’re ever ‘successful’ at it or not, because finding that thing will give your life meaning and purpose. And more than that: it will give you power. When you know what your course of action is, where you’re headed, and that you’ll be headed there no matter what, then you are powerful. And you will become strong and develop resilience by keeping on going when the going gets tough (ooh, there’s another saying of Grandma’s).
Successful People Have a Plan
Liz Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic (not a sponsored reference I just loved the book!) that when she would receive a rejection letter for one of her short stories, she would do the following: Read the rejection letter, detach her copy of her story from it, and then straight away put the story in another envelope to go to another publisher.
That’s what I’m talking about. Not letting failure be a reason to stop, but using it as momentum to keep going. Have a plan in place so when you fail/ are rejected/ receive criticism, you don’t crumble, but just keep going.
If you get rejected, how can you get back up again, fast?
You can do it by having a detailed plan of how you’ll pursue what matters to you. Once you finish one item on the list, you move onto the next. Straight away. No matter what.
Or else you do as Liz did and have a reactionary plan. For every rejection you get, you send out another query. Every time you eat unhealthily, you do an extra workout. Every time you’re rejected by a date, you call up two more people for dates next week. You just ignore rejection or failure as a sign that you’re heading in the wrong direction.
This isn’t to say that you don’t learn from your mistakes. You might be headed towards your dreams or goals by a really rough path and there may be an easier one just to the left. That kind of advice you can take, as long as you’re not giving up on the direction.
Once you get used to this, you will become addicted. After all, a setback makes us feel temporarily powerless. Instead of feeling that way until something good happens (which makes us feel better, but not necessarily powerful), you can now take action straight away. You are powerful again straight away. You get to say to the world: ‘I’m still in charge.’
Successful People Stick to the Plan
When you know what you’re after in life, what you value, what you stand for and what’s important, you won’t be pushed around by life or circumstances or people. To live a really valuable life, you have to be able to keep going no matter what is thrown at you: no matter how you feel, what negative thoughts creep in, what others say, what circumstances arise. Yes, they will knock you around temporarily, but the secret is that you just keep getting back up.
So once you know what you want, don’t give up on it. Change your tactics, your methods, your approach, but never stop shooting for what you want. After all, success is getting up one more time than you’re knocked down (I couldn’t resist getting in just one more slogan!).
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.