August 25th, 2008

Extreme Failing: Learning from the Pros

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You must daily have the courage to risk making mistakes, risk failure, risk being humiliated. A step in the wrong direction is better than staying “on the spot” all your life.

-Maxwell Maltz

There are some activities and jobs in which people must fail every day in order to succeed. Think of the insurance salesman who is turned down 9 times in a row, just to have one success. Or the skateboarder who must fail at performing a new trick many times before he is able to perform it successfully one time. We can learn a lot from these extreme failing individuals- they seem to view failure as a temporary setback, or a learning experience.

Learning from Extreme Failing: Skateboarders

As a high school student, I loved skateboarding. The nature of skateboarding involves a lot of failing- my skater friends allowed themselves to fail much more often than I did, and in doing so, they became great. I’ve pulled together some footage from my high school skateboarding days to give you a visual of extreme failing:

What if a skateboarder fell one too many times, and thought of his failure as a defeat, wallowing in its permanence and pervasiveness? What if he decided he wouldn’t try the same trick again, for months? I can tell you that he wouldn’t get very far in skateboarding with that mindset. To be successful at skateboarding, you must pick yourself up after a failure and immediately start trying again. You must look at a failure as a challenge, or a temporary setback to achieving your goal.

The Extreme Failing Mindset Can be Applied to Any Type of Setback

The extreme failing mindset isn’t just for insurance salesmen and skateboarders- it can help anyone overcome a setback in their life. One example would be if you recently broke up with someone- If you tell yourself “This is only temporary, I will find someone else”, you will be on your way to a fast recovery. But if tell yourself “This person meant everything to me, I’ll never find someone else like them”, you are setting yourself up for depression and pain.

Similarly, if you recently lost your job, and explain it to yourself as “I lost my job because I am lazy and incompetent- no other employer will want to hire me”, you most likely won’t recover and get a new job for a while- the negative mindset will be self-fulfilling. By contrast, if you tell yourself “The economy is not doing well right now so my employer had to make some cutbacks- I tried my best, and now I will find a new job even better than the last”, you will be on your way to finding a great new job.

Three Dimensions of Explaining Setbacks to Yourself

Based on years of research from psychologist Martin Seligman (explained in his book Learned Optimism), there are three dimensions of explaining setbacks to yourself: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization. On each dimension, you can explain a setback with either the extreme failing (optimist) mindset, or the pessimist mindset:

Permanence: Do you believe the cause of the bad event is permanent or temporary? Extreme failing individuals believe the bad event is temporary.

Breaking up example: Tell yourself “I will find someone else”

Pervasiveness: Do you believe the cause of the bad event is universal, or specific? Extreme failing individuals believe the cause of a bad event is specific.

Breaking up example: Tell yourself “My relationship was only one part of my life”

Personalization: Do you believe the cause of the bad event is your fault (internalize), or other people’s fault (externalized)? Extreme failing individuals believe the bad event is external to themselves.

Breaking up example: Tell yourself “My ex was not the right person for me”

Do You Have the Extreme Failing Mindset? Take the Test

How do you perceive failures in your own life? Take the test to find out how well you handle setbacks, and how much of an extreme failing individual (optimist) you are.

Taking Responsibility

A comment was recently posted by Brandon (see below), with concerns over how the Martin Seligman’s optimism test, and the Personalization dimension of explanatory style. The test seems to encourage us to not take responsibility, and instead blame external events/people. Here is a quote from Dr. Seligman’s book to help answer Brandon’s concern:

I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility. I don’t believe people should change their beliefs from internal to external wholesale. Nevertheless, there is one condition under which this usually should be done: depression . . . We want people to change, and we know they will not change if they do not assume responsibility. If we want people to change, internality is not as crucial as the permanence dimension is. If you believe the cause of your mess is permanent, you will not act to change it. If, however, you believe the cause is temporary, you can act to change it. If we want people to be responsible for what they do, then yes, we want them to have an internal style. More important, people must have a temporary style for bad events- they must believe that whatever the cause of the bad event, it can be changed.

According to Seligman, we should use the external explanation only in situations where we are at risk for depression. Additionally, the Permanence dimension (temporary/permanent) is the key to change, not  Personalization (internal/external).

Creative Commons License photo credit: I Love Trees

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5 Responses to “Extreme Failing: Learning from the Pros”

Christina

August 26th, 2008 - 8:54 pm

Thanks for the great post! Failing is like a stepping stone that leads to success. I don’t think there’s one person who hasn’t failed before accomplishing the greatest feat. Mindset is key… being positive will bring you positive results!

Derek Ralston

August 26th, 2008 - 11:06 pm

@Christina: I appreciate the kind words, and agree completely- mindset is the key. Keep up the inspiring posts at Tivate (=

Brandon

August 31st, 2008 - 10:27 am

I do agree that beating yourself up for your failures (internalizing the fault) will get you nowhere, but I feel that externalizing everything isn’t good either. Maybe I understood the idea of externalizing the fault incorrectly; I am seeing it as putting the blame on anything other than yourself, assuming that you are always perfect and infallible.

If we never own up to our own flaws and mistakes, how can we ever work on self-improvement? This may be a stretch, but I think that continually considering others to be the fault and not yourself may turn you into a more haughty, arrogant person.

Actually I don’t think its your post that caused my sudden rant. I think it was the test that you linked to. Many of the responses for the personalization prompts were basically a choice between blaming your own faults or blaming your failure on uncontrollable causes. I’m pretty sure that choosing to blame yourself gives you a negative score.

For example,
19. Your car runs out of gas on a dark street late at night.
A–I didn’t check to see how much gas was in the tank.
B–The gas gauge was broken.

If

Brandon

August 31st, 2008 - 10:31 am

If you pick A, then you are considered a pessimist for internalizing your failure. However, if you decided to externalize your fault and picked B, then you’d probably come across this problem numerous times in the future. Only if you pick A do you recognize that you have a flaw and only then can you start self-improving to work out that flaw.

Derek Ralston

August 31st, 2008 - 12:56 pm

@Brandon: You bring up a really good point, I also thought about that issue when reading Learned Optimism and taking the test. Let me provide some clarity from Dr. Seligman (quote from Learned Optimism):

I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility. I don’t believe people should change their beliefs from internal to external wholesale. Nevertheless, there is one condition under which this usually should be done: depression . . . We want people to change, and we know they will not change if they do not assume responsibility. If we want people to change, internality is not as crucial as the permanence dimension is. If you believe the cause of your mess is permanent, you will not act to change it. If, however, you believe the cause is temporary, you can act to change it. If we want people to be responsible for what they do, then yes, we want them to have an internal style. More important, people must have a temporary style for bad events- they must believe that whatever the cause of the bad event, it can be changed.

So according to Seligman, we should only use external in situations where we are at risk for depression. Additionally, permanence is the key to change, not internal/external. This seems to make more sense to me. Going to edit the post to add this additional info. Appreciate the comment!

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