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The art of learning from our mistakes, or turning failure to our advantage

We win some, we lose some – that is life; at times we learn some. We learn especially when we stand up against the wind that seems to blow in a single direction nowadays – success, achievement, performance – and we accept that failure is not necessarily a bad thing, but an opportunity: an opportunity to grow wiser and overcome our limitations. Cécile Neuville, a renowned psychologist and author of several influential positive psychology books – “Le secret du bonheur permanent” (“The Secret to Permanent Happiness”), “Apprendre à lâcher prise” (“Learn to Let Go”) – teaches us to fail… successfully and take control of our own destinies.

To err is human, is it not?

Not achieving a goal – whether self-imposed or imposed by others is irrelevant, what matters most is the concept of “goal”– it is synonymous with failure. You are past the appropriate (standard) age for marriage and you have not started your own family (spouse and children) – you have failed in your personal life. You have reached the age of X, Y, Z and you have not attained the standard social status – your social life is a failure. You do not own a house, a car, or a standard bank account – this means financial failure. The idea of goal and failure falls into the vicious cycle of physical existence – a pillar of our culture. A vision passed down from generation to generation, at all levels: by parents at home, by teachers in school, by managers at work.

Fortunately, this vicious cycle is beginning to come apart. We are becoming more and more open to a different philosophy of life, one that rediscovers the value of the trial-and-error learning method. According to this new inner order, missing a goal is no longer synonymous with failure, or with being back to square one. On the contrary, each attempt is a step forward. Sometimes we falter, but that is understandable – our society, far from preparing us for failure or educating us to accept it as a way of confronting our own limits, has instilled us the preconception that failure should put a dent into our self-esteem. This dent should result in a wound and the wound should hurt; and it should hurt so much, that we learn our lesson, and give up trying, give up exploring and stop living our lives to the fullest – so that we never meet with failure again.

Does fear really keep the garden better than the gardener does?

Being afraid of failure. Based on our attitude towards this commandment of our time, Neuville divides us (without making any claims to originality) into two groups: optimists and pessimists. The optimists – the French author says – will always find a way to move on, despite the results, whether they fail or succeed, be it in their emotional, social, or professional life, unlike the pessimists, who will perceive even an achievement as a failure. Sometimes it is all a matter of “obstinacy”, or resistance. There are people who will always move ahead regardless of obstacles, even if at least once in their lives one or other components of their lives will give them a hard time.

One thing is certain, anyway: all those who choose to go on with their lives have one thing in common – flexibility. Guilt is something they seldom, if ever, experience. They accept and find a meaning to every hardship they encounter. They learn to live expecting and taking on the challenges that come their way without trying to avoid them, they try to figure out how to deal with them and find the answers they need. The idea that failure or difficulties are rather an obstacle than a result is a part of their life philosophy.

“The greatest mistake is not failure itself, but the inability to dominate failure.” (Francois Mitterrand)

Can failure be constructive?

In Cécile Neuville’s opinion, learning comes from failed attempts. Indeed, we may have failed to reach our goal, but we can learn a great deal from the mistakes that prevented our success. Besides, failure teaches us modesty; it teaches us to take a step back and ask ourselves questions rather than hold fast to certainties. If everything were certain and every battle were already won, our world would be such a boring place!

On the other hand, we should not go from one extreme to the other and purposely throw obstacles into our own way; that would make us a sort of masochists. What we should do is understand their meaning and turn them into experiences we can learn from, whenever we stumble across them. The defeatist statement “Only those who know misery can cherish happiness” is false! The people who went through the most traumatic experiences are not necessarily the happiest people in the world. On the contrary, in order to keep going it is essential for them to find the meaning of the traumas they suffered.

As a method of overcoming failure, Cécile Neuville recommends taking the time to make a list with our achievements and ask our friends or family to help us analyse it, by looking at every achievement and telling us what they think about it, as a counterpoise to our potential subjectivity. This experiment – writing down our achievements and what made them possible – will give us a lot of confidence, as the author assures us.

What part does emotional intelligence play?

Amidst the storm, faced with failure, looking on the bright side is not exactly a piece of cake. How do we go on? Is it OK to give ourselves the right to be sad, or angry, or to cry?

The best approach is to accept our emotions, the psychologist replies. There is a reason why emotional intelligence is such a highly discussed topic. We have to accept our emotions and learn to deal with them. If we are sad, we must allow ourselves to cry, so that tomorrow we can start over, eager to find solutions and move forward. We should not deny our emotions: we are human beings and what we feel is a part of us. On the other hand, we should not let our emotions overwhelm us. We feel them, but we are not our emotions.

Lastly, we must analyse our failure and find a way to carry on without blaming ourselves. Looking for solutions is a much more efficient method to recover from failure than seeking its cause, as brooding over our failure, far from helping us move forward, will only hold us back.

What is the moment when failure ceases to be constructive and becomes destructive?
It is when we cannot get over it, and when it keeps us from setting new goals, Cécile Neuville answers. Failure stops being a life-lesson the moment it inhibits and prevents us from taking new risks.

How do we turn failure into power?

Gently: first, we must be able to relativize failure rather than making a drama out of it. Acceptance is also very important, as failure is a part of life, it is inevitable; and so is adaptability. Things will not always turn out the way we expected – this is a possibility we must be prepared for all the time – because, after all, we are not perfect.

I repeat: to be able to move forward we must acknowledge our emotions so that we can channel them more efficiently. Extremely helpful are meditation, relaxation techniques and exercise. The choice is ours. The important thing is to settle on whatever can help us start again with refreshed energy.

You can also read:
The power our thoughts have upon us
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