Failure is a word that is as vague as it is terrifying.
According to an article in Psychology Today, the fear of failure is defined as “the emotional, cognitive and behavioral reaction to the negative consequences you anticipate for failing to achieve a goal.” The article also lists several reasons for why we fear failure.
First, it’s embarrassing. Next, some people believe that their failures will let down the people they care about most. Additionally, and possibly the most debilitating, is the idea that our failures define us. According to the South African College of Applied Psychology, we are scared to fail because failure is directly linked to our sense of self-worth. In order to protect our image, we need to believe that we are competent and we need to convince others of this as well.
This is why, according to Psychology Today, after repeated failures, negative thoughts like “Maybe I’m just not smart, skilled or talented enough to succeed” infiltrate our minds. This mindset results in us either not trying at all to reach our goals or significantly lowering our standards of success, because not pursuing an important goal is less painful than finding out that we are not competent enough to achieve it.
No matter where it stems from or how devastating it may be, we must keep in mind that failure is inevitable and can be overcome. In the moments immediately following a failure, we should build up a sense of grit, and use it to quickly pull us out of our slump and learn from the experience.
Now, if you just Googled the word “grit” and are confused as to why I am asserting that we use “small, loose particles of stone or sand,” to overcome our failures, you were not alone.
What I am referring to is the sense of “grit,” defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as the combination of unwavering passion and perseverance, regardless of the obstacles one might face.
Grit explains why, when confronted with the possibility of failure, some of us work twice as hard while others head straight for the door.
Duckworth wrote in her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” that her obsession with grit began when she visited the U.S. Military Academy, where each year, over one thousand new cadets go through a grueling seven-week training regimen before entering freshman year.
After discovering that a small number of cadets do not make it through the regime, Duckworth became determined to find out why this was the case.
She left West Point and conducted several interviews with leaders in business, medicine and law, where she discovered that the highly successful were unusually resilient and hardworking.
With this insight, Duckworth returned to West Point to give the cadets what she termed “the grit scale,” a simple written survey that essentially measures perseverance. In the survey, the cadets were asked to identify with statements such as “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” “I don’t give up easily” and “My interests change from year to year.”
Grit turned out to be an astoundingly reliable predictor of who made it through and who did not.
In order to make it through something as mentally and physically challenging as the West Point regimen, one must be able to embrace the high possibility of failure and persevere. The less gritty cadets found it far easier to throw in the towel after a few especially difficult training sessions.
The takeaway from Duckworth’s study is that the cadets who made it through the regime failed as many times as the dropouts, but did not allow those failures to define them. They were able to quickly remind themselves that they are imperfect human beings and learn from their mistakes moving forward.
Now, UCLA may not be as intense as a West Point regimen, but Duckworth’s study shows that with grit, failure is not something to fear, but rather something that we can overcome and grow from.
If you are looking for ways to become grittier during the trying times of finals week, Duckworth explained how we can achieve it in an interview with The New York Times.
First, we must consider what we are interested in. Only after discovering and deepening that interest can we do the “difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes us better.” In addition, we must also maintain a sense of hope or resilience, even in the face of setbacks.
In an interview with the blog Farnam Street, Duckworth said, “World class experts tend to be gritty and talented. You can model what they do. … They work on weaknesses, not strengths. They’re comfortable being uncomfortable. … They’re attempting challenges that are too high. They’re getting feedback.”
In the same interview, Duckworth also explained that when it comes to dealing with failure, we should embrace it as a necessary part of success. Leaders tend to work outside of their comfort zone. They work more when they are failing than when they are succeeding, and grow as a result, she said.
According to Duckworth, we should embrace what we learn from our failures. Don’t just think “I failed; I’m going to get back up and be resilient,” but rather “Why did I fail? What should I do so that I am less likely to fail next time, which is when I am going to get up again and do it.”
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