Rising above failure

By responding to failures positively, students can develop their key inner strengths and become more resilient

Rhea and Rajiv have both failed in Statistics and Accounting exams. When they first receive their papers, both of them are deeply disappointed. But the very next day, Rhea calls up her friend who has done blazingly well and asks her if they can go over Rhea’s mistakes together. The friend readily obliges and Rhea pores over every answer, trying to see how she could have fared better. She also realises that there are some gaps in her understanding in Accounting and decides to approach a tutor to help her strengthen her conceptual grasp of certain topics. Rhea is also glad that she has done well in Economics. She tells herself that if she gets her act together, she can do better in the subjects she finds really hard as well.

Rajiv, on the other hand, tears his exam paper to shreds when he gets home as he can’t bear to see the failing grade on the paper. He doesn’t go out or even answers his friends’ phone calls for an entire week. When his parents try to cajole him saying that he has done poorly in only two subjects, Rajiv tells them that they have no idea how these grades are going to pull him down when it comes to admissions for a postgraduate programme.

When his dad reminds him that he is among the toppers in Economics, he sneers that his performance on that exam was a fluke. Besides, if he doesn’t do well in Accounts, he isn’t cut out for a career in finance. Perhaps, he’d better stop aspiring for a prestigious postgraduate programme or even a good placement after college. No goods like him are destined to lead miserable lives anyway.

How you respond matters

While Rhea and Rajiv’s situations are initially very similar, how they respond to them alters their realities in perceptible ways. Rhea, being an eternal optimist, not only takes failure in her stride but also tries to find ways to avoid a similar fate next time. By taking proactive measures like reviewing her errors and going for tuition, Rhea is making a concerted effort to do better on the next set of exams. Further, she views her poor performance as specific to two subjects and feels proud that she has done admirably in at least one subject.  

In stark contrast, Rajiv views his situation through the lens of pessimism. Not only is he demoralised by his abysmal performance, he even shies away from meeting friends for a while. In addition, he generalises his failure to all aspects of his life. From not getting admission or a good job, he actually views himself as a “no good.”

What Rajiv does not realise is that his worldview is actually setting him up for more failure in the future. And, encountering more setbacks will only strengthen his negative outlook, thereby setting him up for a downward spiral. Renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, writes, “Failure, in itself, is not catastrophic. It may deflate self-esteem for a while, but it is the interpretation…of the failure that can be more harmful.”

But Rajiv does not need to despair that all is lost as he can make an effort to view situations through a more positive framework. According to Seligman, a pessimist has to change his or her ‘explanatory style’. He believes that pessimism is characterised by three thought patterns, which he calls the 3 Ps. The first is permanence. A person with a defeatist attitude thinks that any upset or disappointment will have a long-lasting impact. Such a person believes that a failure in the present implies a bleaker future as well. Next, a pessimist sees a problem as pervasive affecting all aspects of their life. So, a complication in one area of their life has ramifications in others facets as well. Third, a person with a negative outlook interprets problems as personal shortcomings. Thus, a bad grade on a test implies that the person is not smart enough.

An optimist, on the other hand, interprets downfalls differently. They see most problems as temporary, thus, believing that a solution is possible even if they can’t find one immediately. Second, they don’t generalise that misfortune will dampen all aspects of their life. They tend to compartmentalise their problems and characterise them as local as opposed to global in nature. Finally, optimists don’t necessarily blame themselves when things go wrong and are beyond the scope of their control. If they do hold themselves accountable for a debacle, they see what they can do to rectify the situation. But if the problem is not their fault, they don’t let it eat into them.

Watch your thoughts

So, the next time you encounter failure, take a moment and watch your thoughts. Typically, we all have ‘automatic thoughts’ that provide a running commentary of life experiences. However, these thoughts are not always accurate or helpful. So, the first step in changing your pessimism into optimism is to practise ‘thought catching’. Observe your thoughts like an outsider or perhaps, even write them down. Next, you need to evaluate these thoughts to see if they provide an accurate picture of the situation.

At this point, it helps to bring some distance between yourself and your thoughts. So, imagine your thoughts are not yours but that of a close friend. How would you advise your friend in such a situation? Is the situation as dire as it seems? Are there any ways in which you might challenge these negative thoughts? Remember, to watch out for the three pitfalls of pessimism — permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation.

Thus, instead of simply listening to the first thoughts that pop up into your head, learn to be more flexible wherein you actually challenge your own thinking. By learning to view difficulties as temporary, local and external, you can grow more resilient to handle life’s challenges confidently.  

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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