In his piece on PsychCentral.com entitled If I Stumble, If I Fall: 5 Tips When Failing by John M Grohol PsyD, Dr. Grohol points out that failure is how we learn. Like a toddler, we need to take a few steps, fall down, then get back up and take a few more steps. Toddlers have the feedback from enthusiastic adults that encourages them to get back up. They don’t see it as “trying,” they probably think they’re just doing something fun.
As adults, we rarely have cheerleaders urging us on to keep trying. We can be exceptionally difficult on ourselves. I know I am. If I can’t get something right the first time, I assume it’s because I’m stupid or I’m a klutz. Perfectionism is an evil thing. The rational part of my brain knows I’m intelligent, there are a lot of things in life I couldn’t do if I weren’t. Now being a klutz, I’m not so sure that isn’t true, but I have to stop letting that perception of myself keep me from riding my bike, or learning to ski, or driving a tractor (as I almost did this weekend!). I can’t let my perceived limitations keep me from relearning French, writing, or finishing my degree.
Here are the five tips I hope I can incorporate in my life.
1. Don’t criticize yourself for trying.
Trying or learning something new is often half the battle. Defer your criticism until later, or better yet, learn to answer your inner critic with an objective voice.
2. Never stop trying.
Toddlers don’t give up until they learn to walk — failure is simply not an option. If you really want to change some behavior or learn to do something new, don’t give up trying. You may get frustrated by the lack of progress sometimes, but if you give up, your progress will come to a screeching halt.
3. Understand the power of optimism.
While optimism is the ‘new happiness,’ there is a certain power in optimistic thinking whether you believe it wholly or not. Putting yourself in a more optimistic mindset (or even a more mindful mindset) can open you up to more possibilities than usual. Kids don’t ask whether they can do something or not — they know they can. And that’s one of the values we so cherish in children. Mirror that optimism.
4. Learn to rely on yourself first, then others.
Those who are self-reliant are also usually more self-resilient — meaning they can bounce back from problems, stress and heartbreak more readily than those who aren’t. Becoming more self-reliant is easier than it sounds — become your own best friend, do everything that you can possibly do for yourself, and learn what your strengths and weaknesses are.
5. Don’t look back.
We spend too much of our adult lives looking back. There’s nothing back there to see. A toddler wouldn’t get anywhere walking if all she did was look behind herself while trying to move forward. It’s a silly idea born out of Freud’s original vision of psychology and self-change. And while it has some value if you want to be very introspective and analytic, for most of us, it just bogs us down. Spend just 10 percent more of your time looking forward to what life holds for you in the future, and I suspect you’ll find yourself in a better position.
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Failure is a part of life since our earliest moment of consciousness. Somewhere along the way, we think of failure as something bad — it gets laden down with judgment and negative thoughts. But failure is a normal and natural part of life that is neither bad nor good — it’s just how we learn.
So the question isn’t whether you want to fail or not (because you will — we all do!), but how quickly you can embrace your failure, learn something from it, and try again. We can learn something from a toddler learning to walk — they don’t take their failure to heart; they simply try again.
Sometimes I think I have permanently skinned knees from all the times I’ve been knocked down by myself and others, both figuratively and literally. But I think from here on out, I’m just going to put a couple band-aids on my knees, be my own cheerleader and try again…whatever it is I want to do.