In order to respond to failure, sometimes you have to be willing to feel failure. Several years ago, when I was hitting practice shots on the golf range, my instructor said to me, “Neal, I want you to hit a poor shot. I want you to top the ball so that it skims along on the ground.” I looked at him incredulously and asked him why in the world he wanted me to hit a bad shot. He replied, “Because you need to know what it feels like.” He suggested that it is good to know what a bad shot feels like – so when it actually happens on the course you understand the cause and know how to correct the problem. In other words, you are prepared to respond to the failure. What does it feel like to slice a ball to the right? What does it feel like to pull a duck hook to the left? And more importantly, what caused the shot to move in that manner – and how are you going to respond to it?
I have a poster about Abraham Lincoln hanging near my desk. It details many failures in his lifetime. Among them were failures in business, politics, and relationships. Yet, after each failure, he picked himself up and pressed on with his life.
To give a specific example how Lincoln responded to a gigantic failure, consider in 1859 – after four months of arduous campaigning, after giving the best speeches he was capable of writing, he lost the senate race to Stephen Douglas for a second time. He became despondent. He said to a friend, “I feel like the boy who stumped his toe. I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.” Lincoln’s feelings might be the same you have experienced in times of failure or defeat. They are normal – don’t be afraid of them – instead feel them, embrace them, and then respond to them. When Lincoln was faced with a failure he demonstrated what matters most is what you do following it. He resumed his law practice, restored his finances, and regained his political confidence. In a letter to an Illinois colleague, he wrote “I have an abiding faith that we shall beat them in the long run. I write merely to let you know that I am neither dead nor dying.” Not long after this, Republican national party leaders were championing Lincoln for the Presidency of 1860.
There are many, many more examples of people who went on to do great things after they failed. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb after failing at thousands of experiments to create one. Dr. Seuss got his first children’s book published after being rejected by 23 publishers. Michael Jordan became a professional basketball player (maybe the greatest of all time) after being cut from his high school basketball team.
In his book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill wrote the following:
Before success comes in any man’s life, he is sure to meet with much temporary defeat, and, perhaps, some failure. When defeat overtakes a man, the easiest and most logical thing to do is to quit. That is exactly what the majority of men do. Many successful men say that their greatest success came just one step beyond the point at which defeat had overtaken them. Failure is a trickster with a keen sense of irony and cunning. It takes great delight in tripping one when success is almost within reach.
How many times have you thought or heard the words, “If only I had stuck with it a little longer – things might have turned out differently.” In the whole scheme of things, it’s not the failure that really matters. It’s how you react and respond to “temporary defeat” that’s important. Do you give up, or press on? And when you do press on … beyond failure … to an eventual success … what about that feeling? Wow!!! Isn’t that the best feeling of all?
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Next Time: Responding to My Public Speaking Failures