Gimme an F! A! I! L! What does that spell?
September 28, 2009 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Is there a way to tweak my personal psychology so that I perceive failure and rejection as neutral or even positive, rather than negative, events?

Artistic failure, professional failure, personal failure - I'm interested in all of them. Some animals can be conditioned to perceive mildly painful stimuli as positive events - why not me?
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Human Relations (22 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea how to experience an event that I perceive as a failure as something positive, but by adjusting the context in which I evaluate it, I can definitely downplay the negative aspects of a failure or rejection.

When I put a lot of effort into a given task and the end result is less than pleasing, instead of focusing on the outcome, I focus on the process that led up to it. I try to remind myself that I made a good effort and take satisfaction in the fact that I completed something whether or not it had the desired effect.

I also tell myself that each time I fail I'm one step closer to success.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 4:12 PM on September 28, 2009

Practice. Every time you experience something negative, find the good in it. "I am so glad he punched me in the gut. If he had hit me in the face right before my big show, I would have freaked." "Even though I did not get the job, I did so much research on the company and the position, that I now am confident I can approach their competitor and find a role." "I am so happy my mother lived a good long life prior to her passing. She raised 2 (out of 3) good kids and volunteered so much time at the rehab center."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:18 PM on September 28, 2009

Check out the Sedona Method. You don't need to buy the expensive seminars; the book will do you fine.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:26 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The book Mindset might help you. It suggests that there are two distinct "mindsets" through which people tend to view various facets of their lives. In "fixed" mindsets, people generally perceive failures as a sign that they're inadequate to the task (and believe that they can't improve). In "growth" mindsets, people tend to perceive failure as a sign that they just need to try a different strategy (and can improve their aptitude). It also talks about ways to overcome a "fixed" mindset and therefore get over the negative reactions to, or fear of, failure.

It sounds hokey, but it helped me to take setbacks in my studies much less personally. Instead of "OMG I'm rubbish at this!" I now tend to think "OK that technique didn't work; what can I try next?". Much better.
posted by metaBugs at 4:32 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think you can definitely use CBT (sorry, that's shorthand: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to be exact) techniques to get to the root of why, exactly, a rejection or a failure bothers you so much. CBT is all about identifying forms of "twisted thinking" that make you feel bad. It's mostly about recognizing places in which you're making huge assumptions or leaps of faith, or choosing to use someone else's behavior as a reflection of your own unrealistic or negative thoughts about your self worth.

I think when you do some of these things, it's almost impossible NOT to see the positive sides of a rejection or a failure, when you're analyzing the reality of the situation. For example. Say you did not get a job you really wanted. You feel bad. You analyze that.

"I got rejected for this job. I feel really bad about it. Why? --->
"I feel like the company evaluated me and saw the truth: I was not good enough for the job." --->
"Is that really the truth? Is it possibly just as likely that they really liked me, but chose to go with an equally or differently qualified candidate for reasons that have nothing to do with me?" -->
"Of course it is, but even so, this is probably going to happen to me with every job that I apply for." -->
"Is there any way that I can actually tell the future or predict that this is going to happen, or am I making a huge assumption here?" -->
repeat until you get to the reality of the situation. At the end of this logical exercise you will likely not just feel better about the individual failure, but feel better about your ability to cope with disappointments, and in the course of this, you'll likely touch on the positives of this "failure" -- i.e. "This frees me to find a job where my employers are incredibly excited to bring me on board." etc.

This is not tweaking your personality. I don't believe there is such a thing. This is coping with the negative things that every personality brings with it. However, I feel like when you stop searching for the magic bullet to "fix" your personality, but rather find techniques to keep the negative thought patterns at bay, you win much more. Now, you feel much more in control, rather than waiting for some miracle of science or popular culture that nobody else has figured out to improve your life.

Life does not stop giving you trials. You are mentally going to kick your own ass and feel bad sometimes. I do think if you approach your disappointments with a positive, kind outlook (for yourself and others), you get so used to it that you do eliminate some of the negative thoughts before they even occur, but I don't believe it's possible to mentally train yourself to get rid of them entirely. This is a good thing. Our self-critical thoughts keep us striving to excel, to be the best version of our selves.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:35 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

This is pretty much what others have suggested, just phrased differently. Lately, I've been finding that dealing with nagging self-doubt and criticism is easier when I remind myself that if I can't, as an adult, deal with and learn from disappointment, I might as well just kill myself, because disappointment isn't going away.

*note: might not work so well if you are actually suicidal.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:39 PM on September 28, 2009

Obviously you have people recommending you try to find the good in failure. I suggest going one further and attempting something(s) that you are absolutely 100% going to fail at. This should be something you're hoping to improve, else it's a lot harder to find the good in it and it feels more pointless (because it would be more pointless).

This way you don't have to wait to fail--you can start the feedback loop immediately. So:

1. Prepare for difficult event.
2. Despite preparation, fail (generally based on inexperience).
3. As soon as possible, review event for lessons. What did this experience teach me? How can I avoid this particular failure in the future? Note that physically acquired skills (like sports or music) may largely require simple repetition--but don't skimp on the review. It's OK to say "I would have caught ball if I were faster. I get faster by practice. Let's try again."

If you're in a position to fail often you can improve that much faster. Whether or not you're trying to fail faster in an effort to accelerate learning, it's important to acknowledge your failures (so you may remember their lessons), acknowledge what you did *right* (to reinforce the positive), and then drop it and focus on the next time.

I do this a lot in sports: "I shouldn't have thrown there. If I had waited, or made a safer throw, I wouldn't have turned it over. At least I didn't give up too much field position. OK, next point. Make good decisions..." Definitely important not to get into the "you screwed up AGAIN" habit because it just isn't going to help.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 4:46 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Check out this part of an in the actors studio interview.
At about 1:10 Mr Chappelle has a story with great perspective.
posted by jade east at 5:12 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What you need is a way to systematically expose yourself to your own failure.

Get yourself a blog, and make something every day for a set period of time: a week, a month, a year. It doesn't matter what you make (stories? paintings? stuffed animals?), as long as you're strict about meeting your deadline, and as long as you share with the world the result of your process---even if it isn't finished, even if it sucks. Get some friends to join in with you, if you can.

By the end of the process, you'll (hopefully) come to realize that failure is not just fun, it is awesome. Your skills will improve and you'll make some cool stuff in the process.
posted by aparrish at 5:13 PM on September 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. it's whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.

-Barack Obama
posted by dragonette1 at 5:42 PM on September 28, 2009 [8 favorites]

Instead of trying to find the good in failure, try to find the failure in your success. Every time I succeed at the most minimal goal in my life I make a special point to look back at how many times I "failed" to achieve the desired result and how much frustration was necessary to get it right. This gives me the strength and most importantly gives me the realistic expectations I need to accomplish my next goal. Most "failure" is actually a result of unrealistic expectations. Great achievements - even mediocre achievements - can only be attained by incremental steps that have their own timetable. Be the best that you can be on this day, that's the only thing under your control. You have no control over how much better you are than someone else. Compare yourself to your former self not your fellow man and you'll find incremental success where others might see failure.
posted by any major dude at 5:57 PM on September 28, 2009

Exceptionally good advice in a short PDF excerpt from an okay (yep, just okay) book: The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. All I might add is [1] put a two-mile-thick wall of screaming laser death between yourself and 'negative people' as you stop being a negative person [2] spend some time in a prison or hospice or homeless shelter or otherwise around people who have some real ongoing crushing misfortune in their lives to get some perspective on how lucky you are every single day. The people in [2] do not at all want their sorrow, the people in [1] consider it their virtue.
posted by eccnineten at 6:00 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Perhaps it will help to know that "Artistic failure, professional failure, [and] personal failure", that failure is due to some innate characteristic or character flaw and is something to be ashamed of, that failure is a something a person is instead of something that they did, all of these concepts were invented in the 1800s.

From an interview of Scott Sandage, author of the book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, which takes a look at the notion of failure and how it has evolved from simple business losses to a measure of one's self-worth.

Interviewer: The whole idea of the history of failure really changes dramatically in the 19th century. Somehow prior to that time failure was not seen as a character flaw. Failure was simply seen as something that happened if you went into a business venture and it didn't work. But after the 19th century then somehow your whole being was called into question. How did that change occur?

Sandage: That was the thing that surprised me most in writing this book. I assumed when I started that failure had always meant more or less what we think of it as meaning now. You need only visit any local high school to find young people making an l-shaped sign with their forefinger and thumb and putting it up to their forehead which now means loser, failure, worthless person. And I assumed when I started that somehow it had always been that way. I couldn't have been more surprised to find that it had not always been that way. Around 1800 the beginning of the 19th century, the word failure meant only one thing. Meant to go bankrupt in business. Briefly in the American vocabulary, failure had had a religious meaning from the 12th psalm to cease and fail from the lord, which meant to go off god's path. By the 19th century as American business and markets and capitalism began to heat up, failure became associated with bankruptcy. There were several limitations on the definition of failure for that reason. The only type of person in 1800 or 1820 who could go bankrupt was a white male who was a entrepreneur. Which meant that although african-americans and women and laboring white men could not succeed, they also couldn't be losers. For the men who did go bankrupt in the early 1800's, it didn't define their entire being. They were of course still responsible. But there's a difference between being held responsible for something that you have caused to happen and having that event define your personality through and through. And that's the change that I traced throughout the book.
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:12 PM on September 28, 2009 [18 favorites]

Stoicism. It's like straightforward, practical Buddhism for action oriented, no-nonsense people.

The answer to your question is one of the fundamental tenets of Stoicism.

You can read on various issues addressed by Seneca (a personal favorite).

This is the most practical self-help advice I have found.
posted by bradly at 7:34 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I once read somewhere that a good way to get over feeling that failure is a negative thing is to go out and intentionally do something that you are going to fail at. At first, it will be uncomfortable and you will not like it one bit. Eventually though, you'll start to accept that the failure is irrelevant to the situation as a whole, and the concept will lose its power over you.
One classic example they gave was to go into a store or restaurant and ask for something you know for a fact they do not have.
posted by nightchrome at 8:37 PM on September 28, 2009

You might find some pertinent answers in this thread.
posted by Nattie at 12:52 AM on September 29, 2009

Echoing Riki, think about purposely doing things you expect to fail in. Albert Ellis did this in regards to dating. He forced himself to ask x number of women out over y days. If I remember correctly, he didn't get any dates out of it.

I'd also suggest that continually failing may make you less sensitive to failing, something that may be akin to resilience.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 10:56 AM on September 29, 2009

To start with, I don't think all failures and rejections should be thought of as neutral or positive. But certainly we can interpret some that way. Programmers have the motto fail early and often. The cartoonist Chuck Jones said that everyone has 1000 bad drawings in them. And I've always loved the line "experience is that thing you get right after you needed it." These are all ways of getting at the same idea: that you try stuff knowing that you're going to make mistakes, but that you can learn from them.

It's up to us how we interpret the events in our lives, and if we can gain the benefit of experience from our failures, then we've gotten something positive out of them.
posted by adamrice at 2:51 PM on September 29, 2009

Late comment, but:

I'll only speak to artistic failure. If I were less tired I might try to spin it into a metaphor for personal failure, but here it is, plainly: the better you get at being an artist, the better you understand your particular art. With an expanding understanding of your art, you become an ever-more sophisticated critic. These skills help you make better art, but they at the same time enable/force you to see your art's shortcomings. Consequently, and quasi-paradoxically, your art, if you really are developing as an artist, will become more and more saturated with failure as you get better and better.

As an artist, the key to not being completely torn apart by this phenomenon is to have a kind of schizophrenic ability to switch perspectives at will between producer and consumer.

In life I suppose the analog is being able to switch between seeing life as the sum total of your feelings (solipsism/phenomenology), which may be dominated by harsh self-criticism for no reason other than you are programmed that way, and being able to see life as the sum total of the causes of your actions (realism/consequentialism), the good of which you may not have examined because of cogntive bias. A.k.a. “being too hard on yourself.”
posted by skwt at 12:39 AM on October 1, 2009

sorry, I should have said:

your art, if you really are developing as an artist, will become,
from your perspective, more and more saturated with failure as you get better and better.
posted by skwt at 12:42 AM on October 1, 2009

aparrish has a great suggestion.

In addition to the making-stuff/art approach, may I suggest thinking about "failures" from a scientific perspective:

Science is all about coming up with an idea and then testing it. "Hey, I bet cows with names give more milk than cows without names! I'll try it out and see."

Now, supposing it turns out different than you thought. The experiment is a failure, sort of; but mostly it's a source of new information and a whole bunch of new questions.

"Hey, I bet I could get that job! / write a hit single! / become a world-famous pancake flipper!"

Then you try it out.

And if you DON'T, in fact, write a hit single or get that job, well, you examine the results and the variables that went into it, and the additional questions the result brings up ("Did I like the company all that much? Was I missing a skill they absolutely required? Did one of my interview answers get misunderstood? Do you have to be related to the CEO to get hired?") and see what you can learn, and also which of those questions you might want to pursue for your NEXT experiment.

(Or: what RikiTikiTavi said, only with more science geekery.)
posted by kristi at 1:51 PM on October 2, 2009

I highly recommend this book:

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
posted by sharkfu at 9:24 PM on October 5, 2009

« Older Flight related eyebrow pain?   |   How do you become a pharm tech? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.