Often times in life, people make plans, set expectations, and create mental images of how things will turn out in a given scenario. Brides plan weddings of Disney-Princess caliber, teens dream of the perfect homecoming date, athletes train for the winning race, and people start working out with visions of six-pack-abs dancing in their heads. While it’s great when our mental projections match the reality we experience, it can be equally disappointing when our plans fall through.
Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, has been quoted stating that “I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Coming from one of the greatest athletes of modern times, this is a powerful, albeit paradoxical statement. It also got me thinking about how our failures and disappointments, when viewed as such, can create a downward spiral of stress and negative emotion. By following Michael Jordan’s example, we can allow our failures to become our greatest inspirations and motivators. It’s all about our perception or evaluation of the failure that determines whether we will grow from it, or use it as another excuse to quit.
Earlier in my career, I taught anger management classes to the residents of a drug & alcohol treatment facility. During this class, we reviewed a concept gleaned from a therapeutic modality known as “Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy”. This concept aimed to teach clients one idea: It’s not the event that creates distressing feelings; it’s your evaluation of the event that fuels the negative emotions. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic, it’s easy to think, “They cut me off! They made me angry!” But from a Rational Emotive Behavioral perspective, it is our evaluation of the car moving in front of us that actually creates the negative emotion of anger. Additionally, it is our internally-created expectation of how our commute should go that gets violated when we get cut off. We create the negative feeling within our mind; we create our own stress!
When we learn to shift our attention away from the immediate feeling we’re experiencing in the moment, and move it towards our own influence on how we perceive a given situation, we gain a sense of control over our emotions. No one can “make” me feel anything; I control my emotions through my perception and evaluation of every situation I encounter. This is not to say that negative emotions are some sort of failure; on the contrary, some times negative emotions are a normal response to a situation. The point of this discussion is to illuminate the role that we play in our own misery. Had Michael Jordan perceived his failures (he missed over 9000 shots in his career, lost nearly 300 games, and 26 times was trusted with the game-winning shot and missed) as devastating losses, or proof that he wasn’t good enough, then he may never have become the legend that he is today. Instead, he viewed these events as stepping stones to greatness. We can learn something from this and apply it to our own lives. In reality, our perceived “failures” are really just events, moments in time: we as mere humans are apt to put a label on these events as either positive or negative, victory or failure. Fortunately, we are able to choose and can change how we label these events.
I recently competed in the 2011 Fearless Triathlon. This is a short course race in which athletes complete a short course (swim-bike-run) twice, back-to-back. Unfortunately, I was injured during the first lap, and received my first “DNF” (Did Not Finish). This injury was an event. Not finishing the race that I had so perfectly planned out in my head was an event. I could easily (and did, at first) view these events as failures. I felt negative emotions (disappointment, anger, frustration) because of how I initially evaluated the day. “Man! A DNF! How could this happen! I’m a trained athlete, I should be tougher than this!”. However, once I realized that I was evaluating the situation as a failure and creating my own negative pity-party to wallow in, I began to re-evaluate my day to break out of the cycle. Of course, this isn’t easy, and I had to take the advice of my friends to “snap out of it!”. Once I began to view the day for what it really was (I felt great the whole time I was racing, I was being smart by stopping and not risking further injury, etc), I was able to come away from the event with a much more positive mindset, and a new experience to draw from in the future.
Take a moment to think of a recent failure or disappointment from your own life (Gee, thanks Tray..). Perhaps you planned something that didn’t quite turn out like you hoped. Once you have an example, think about how your perception or evaluation of this event may have generated stress or negative feelings. Was it the event itself that let you down, or did the event just not match your mental expectation? Is there another, more rational or empathic way to view the event? When you can learn to recognize the pattern when it happens, you can put a stop to it, re-evaluate the events, and come away with a different mindset or more positive emotions. Your failures can be a source of strength!