Christopher Mohritz

Fail Forward: Capitalizing on Mistakes

Fail Forward: Capitalizing on Mistakes

Have you seen the movie Batman Begins? One of the main threads of the storyline is a quote that originates with Bruce Wayne’s father…

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As we see in the movie, resilience is a powerful legacy for a father to pass onto his son. And in our world — a world that’s changing faster and faster every day — resilience is a necessity.

I’d even take it one step further: resilience with the ability to learn in the face of failure is what’s needed.

Choosing a path

On many levels, chess is a great analogy for life.

During a match, each player is continuously creating and revising mental maps for different paths they can navigate on their way to winning the match.

Our habit of creating these mental maps also applies to everyday life — in fact, these maps are crucial to our ability to succeed and thrive in our ever-changing world.

Each decision we make involves this kind of mental mapping. We start with the “I am here” point and then draw out a variety of different paths we can take to our desired destination.

Our most successful decisions come from times when we are thinking clearly and can objectively evaluate all the paths available to us, and then accurately predict where each option will lead.

The problem comes in when we are in a negative situation or facing a potential failure. During these stressful times, many of us miss the most important path of all — the path that leads to learning.

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Each decision we make during difficult times come with at least three different paths:

  • One that loops back around to where you currently are,
  • Another that leads to further negativity, and
  • A third that leads to learning and progress

Unfortunately, during difficult times we tend to go for the quickest way out — a path that can lead to further negativity or to simply postpone it.

Or if times are really bad and we start to feel helpless and lose hope, we can lose sight of the path to learning all together.

But, of course, the path to learning is exactly what we should be looking for during these tough times. It is, in-fact, the ability to see the path to learning in difficult times that separates the people crippled by failure and those who excel because of it.

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Study after study has shown that if we focus on the up-side and view failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth.

Conversely, if we focus on the negativity and view failure as a complete loss, we lock ourselves into a prison of self-doubt.

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By staying aware of each mental path we create towards progress and by releasing the paths that lead to suffering, we empower ourselves with the opportunity to grow in the face of difficulty.

Adversarial growth

We’ve all heard the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That strength comes from lessons learned on the path to learning.

Modern research would also seem to agree with this saying — studies show traumatic events often lead to deeply-rooted positive change in relationships, spirituality, compassion, connectedness, and overall life fulfillment.

The catalyst for these positive changes — not surprisingly — is mindset.

Your ability to find the path to learning rests largely on how you perceive the situation — with acceptance, optimism, or as a victim.

Takeaway:  Do you choose to see failure as a stumbling block or as a stepping stone to greatness?
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It is our subjective experience of an event that defines it — do we use the experience to spur growth or allow it drive decline?

Simply put, it is those of us who can most successfully get ourselves up off the mat who define ourselves not by what has happened to us, but by what we can learn from what has happened.

Takeaway:  Do we use adversity to spark a path forward, to bounce forward instead of bouncing back?
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Fail elegantly

It is human nature that we learn best by doing, through real life experience instead of just theory.

So learning to deal well with failure requires actually going through failures.

So why not just make failing part of our path to success?

Many people like to use the “fail fast” mantra. But I’m not a fan of this thinking because it implies an impulsiveness that could miss out on learning opportunities.

I prefer a phrase that I originally learned from Jordan Belfort, and that is “fail elegantly.”

Jordan’s simple shift in terminology implies: we know it’s going to happen, so let’s plan for it, and position ourselves to learn as much as possible from the experience.

But how do we do that?

Alternative perspectives

When presented with adversary, our brains typically have two major reactions: an emotionally-charged response and a more thoughtful intellectually-based response. The former tends to come from the more primitive parts of our brain, and typically drives a knee-jerk response.

Often times these two responses differ greatly, yet are motivated by the exact same situation.

How does our brain create different responses from the same situation?

In a word: counterfacts.

A counterfact is an alternate explanation of what happened, a way for our brain to make sense of what happened. And in our example, two counterfacts create two different responses.

This is where your freedom to choose comes in. Which counterfact will you let define your response to the situation?

Another way to look at this is explanatory style. When you interpret a situation, do you tend to think in terms of “It’s not that bad, and it will get better”?

Or do you lean towards the “It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change” side of things?

Choosing a positive counterfact — or explanatory style — beyond simply making us feel better, sets us up to more clearly see and follow the mental map that leads to our path of learning.

Adversity into opportunity

Not all of us have a naturally-optimistic explanatory style or tendency to look towards the positive counterpart. But fortunately, these are habits we can learn.

There is a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) technique you can use to move in the right direction. Albert Ellis’ A-B-C-D model works well in our situation:

  • Activating event: The initial situation or trigger for your reaction
  • Belief system: How do you interpret the activating event? What are you telling yourself about the event? What are your expectations for how others should behave in the same situation?
  • Consequences: Combine the two above and you have a response. What are the consequences of that response?
  • Dispute: This is where the rubber meets the road. Challenging your beliefs and actions regarding the situation. Are your beliefs valid in the current context? Are your actions justified? By disputing knee-jerk responses, you can gain a more balanced and rational perspective, which ultimately makes for more positive decisions.

The next time you catch yourself in a knee-jerk reaction — feeling frustrated, helpless, or hopeless — just remember that there is always a path to learning. All you have to do is clear your mind enough to see it.

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Your turn

Just remember, success is not about never falling down, its about having the heart to get back up — over and over again. And discovering how to turn downward momentum into forward momentum.

Takeaway:  Success is less about perfection and more about simple learning and resilience.
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How will you capitalize on setbacks to create even more happiness, motivation, and success?

As always, start small and never stop improving.

To your success!

Achor, Shawn, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print.Di Stefano, Giada and Gino, Francesca and Pisano, Gary P. and Staats, Bradley R., Learning by Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection (March 29, 2015). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093; Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 14-093.
Christopher Mohritz

Christopher Mohritz

Chris is the Founder and Managing Director of Christopher Mohritz.