A while ago Oprah Winfrey delivered the commencement speech to Harvard’s undergraduate class of 2013. Ms. Winfrey’s career trajectory probably comes as close to “ultimate success” as it’s possible to imagine. She was raised in a small rural Mississippi town and repeatedly sexually abused. Today, she is the wealthiest woman in America, and a major force in the world of entertainment, having launched her own network which, after a rocky start, has turned out to be tremendously successful.
It was in referring to that rocky start that she made the following statement:
FAILURE IS JUST LIFE TRYING TO MOVE US IN ANOTHER DIRECTION
What an interesting way of looking at failure. It stands in stark contrast to the standard definitions:
- Omission of occurrence or performance; specifically : a failing to perform a duty or expected action <failure to pay the rent on time>
- a state of inability to perform a normal function
- an abrupt cessation of normal functioning <a power failure>
- a fracturing or giving way under stress <structural failure>
- lack of success
- a failing in business : bankruptcy
- a falling short : deficiency <a crop failure>
- deterioration, decay
- one that has failed
All of these dictionary definitions describe powerfully negative situations (or people). But Oprah accurately reframes a whole other aspect of failure: its ability to help point the way to success.
In her address she went on to explain: “You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated. In fact it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” This way of describing failure also rang true for Thomas Edison, the most successful inventor of all time, who in describing the laborious process of discovering the key to the incandescent light bulb, stated:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I often echo this way of looking at what they deem as failure when I ask clients whether they ever played “pin the tail on the donkey” as a child (I’ve yet to find someone who hasn’t). The “You’re getting colder” clue is every bit as useful as “You’re getting warmer.”
These counterintuitive ways of describing failure aren’t just bromides. They’re accurate ways of looking at a setback from the “glass half full” perspective . A cognitive shift. But what about the emotional toll of failing to achieve a goal? How does one turn around negative feelings about failure? Ultimately it’s important to come to a place of acceptance: what happened, happened, and everyone’s life is studded with failure. Sometimes things just don’t align in a way that leads to the desired outcome.
New research from the University of Kent confirms that positive reframing and acceptance are two of the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures. Perhaps surprisingly, it also reveals a third: humor. Also surprisingly, it identified a number of “common sense” strategies that didn’t seem to work.
For the study, a sample of 149 students completed daily diary reports for 3 — 14 days, reporting the most bothersome failure they experienced during the day, what strategies they used to cope with the failure, and how satisfied they felt at the end of the day. Their coping strategies included: using social support; self-distraction; denial; religion; venting; substance use; and self-blame.
Of these, using social support, denial, venting, behavioral disengagement, and self-blame had negative effects on satisfaction at the end of the day: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with the day’s most bothersome failure, the less satisfied they felt at the end of the day. What’s interesting to note is that social support by others was not an effective strategy. In contrast, positive reframing (i.e. trying to see things in a more positive light, looking for something good in what happened), acceptance and humor had positive effects on satisfaction: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with failures, the more satisfied they felt at the end of the day.
So, to most effectively cope with failure, investigate what you can learn from the failure, seek the “serenity to accept the things you cannot change,” and lighten up!