In an age of spectacularly dwindling attention spans, are we in a tearing hurry to indulge in over-simplification to label outcomes in life? Is the hype around our definition of failure leaving us fumbling while we fashion our responses?
The glamorization of success in itself may not be the problem. At least that’s what I think. Rather, it could be the temptation to conjure up instant conclusions and verdicts that maybe doing us in. Think about some of the adjectives we increasingly use to paint gory images about failure in popular imagination. From television studios to newspapers to twitter messages to everyday life in office, aren't these words becoming a tad too familiar for comfort? “Major setback”, “Catastrophe”, “Defeated”, “Down and Out”, “Bruised”, “Battered”, “Disastrous”, “Dismal”, “Absolute”, “Miserable”, “Damaging”, “Debilitating”, “Horrendous”… Oops! I feel like an amygdala attack is lurking in the corner even as I barely finish typing out this sentence! It is a battle royale for eyeballs, and only the most shocking terms seem to make the cut more often than not.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Have we got carried away by terminology and nomenclature to such an extent, that it painfully limits our responses to admittedly unsettling changes in life? Is the massive overload of information and data making us crawl and embarrassingly struggle with that simple thing casually tossed up into the attic called perspective?
You may have seen crestfallen colleagues and friends react as if their entire world has crashed into smithereens when a promotion has eluded them. Or a particular business or career opportunity hasn't manifested the way they wanted. And don't get me started on relationship troubles. I’ll keep that aside for now! It’s complicated as they say, and let’s stay out of the kitchen while it gets stewed! We’ll come back to it later.
Failure may seem like an invalidation of one’s self image and identity at those particularly weak moments. And yes, knives do come out occasionally. Or may at least seem so to you in these trying times. Even legitimate silence from others can be deafening and loaded with meaning. Those drooping shoulders, the unsure look, and feeling of near disempowerment can be pretty hard. This is clearly not how it was meant to be. At some point or the other, we’ve all been there, haven't we? In cultures that place a huge premium on “face-saving”, the impact can be worse. Withdrawing into a shell, denial and hiding from reality can together trigger an emotional cop-out, at times visible and often suppressed. Yes, there is a coping strategy out there for everyone. Not all are good though! That ideal image of a high achieving successful man/woman thriving amidst fierce competition seems so far removed from reality at least for now. Many are even hesitant to come to terms with what’s happening. It doesn't help much to know that this thing called self-esteem isn't something you can fake to yourself for too long, does it?
Which brings me back to the point of narrative and perspective. Our predominant contemporary value system has given top-billing status to success, and for good reason too. It has its upside for sure, when you look at the remarkable progress we’ve made in several spheres in the last couple of decades. Achievement orientation is the oxygen that drives it. I am a fan, Alright! But, you cannot ignore the ruthless and near contemptuous put-downs at people not seen to be “making it in life”. The valiant tales of the victorious are beautifully spiced up. The also-rans are written off and neatly relegated to footnote status. In both cases, the momentum and movement made possible by the inevitable struggle, the interim hits and misses and insights thereof are somewhere lost in the miasma of boring detail, as the end-result becomes the be-all and the end-all. And to top it all, when so many of us look for that external reassurance and validation that we’re doing good enough, perspective takes a beating from all sides. Somehow is it tempting to see more than what’s out there?
Another big casualty is resilience. When you allow yourself to get so overwhelmed, that’s bound to happen, isn't it? Unfortunately, it’s also an absolutely critical ingredient if you wish to attempt a revival of sorts, a smart comeback that can make you proud as it happens. Every moment spent in unhelpful coping strategies keeps chipping away at whatever little resilience is still left. The consequences can be very damaging. Creative thinking, critical analysis, problem solving, decision making, and so many such mandatory skills can only wilt in such an inhospitable environment.
But we also love those triumphant comeback stories powered by self-belief, grit and hard work, don't we? Those who turn defeat into an opportunity to recoup and fight back and regain their power, and how! The ones who admirably motivate people around by their unflappable nature and ability to make a remarkable turnaround and achieve success against the toughest odds. Is there a method to it that we can reuse? Let’s find out.
A 3-Level Approach is what I’d like to share here:
- Take Stock: A calm and composed approach to gather facts and quell the noise in the immediate aftermath of a failure. Get working on the perspective right away before rushing to fix!
- Re-Align: Sorting out the options and a way forward. Sounds simple, but this is where all the strategy happens!
- Stay the Course: Building a system and structure that helps you regain and maintain the momentum. You begin the execution and stay in the game! Works concurrently at an individual and a systemic level. Remember the narrative we spoke about earlier? You are changing it totally here. Ignore this, and watch your strategy turn turtle in no time!
Let me demystify with some details. A personal note here. This is a model I have used in situations in my own life both at work and outside. It is still a work in progress of sorts, and therefore has an open architecture to it. So, feel free to enhance it! And let me know when you’ve done it!
- In the immediate aftermath of a failure or big setback, it is important to stabilize oneself at the earliest. Something has gone totally off your expectations, and the situation could be varyingly described as grave, critical, worrying, hopeless, irretrievable or bad, yet manageable. Alright that sounds warbled for sure. But, what exactly is it more like? Can we weed out the drama, and get to the plain facts in your mind first? If you are a leader, you can overlook this, or give it a cursory glance and cut a sorry figure in no time.
- Settle Down: And before we even get to the next step, spend at least seven to ten minutes to settle down at a mental and emotional level. This is absolutely must especially if the setback feels severe. How about a quick stroll around the office campus? Or a few rounds of stretches? Some water to get past that dry feeling in the throat? A short mindfulness practice (closed eyes or with eyes open)? Pick anything that works for you. More importantly, pick one that increases oxygen supply to your brain and overall system. Use this is as a general guideline, and do something that has a calming and positive effect on your mind and body. Oh Yeah! Water deprivation is a sure-shot way to ensure you charge ahead with a nice little foggy brain! Some movement helps to release those knots and pressure points on your muscles and joints. Trust me. It can only help.
- Un-Label: Keep the adjectives aside for a while. And then run away from that side, if you know what I mean. If you can resist the temptation to stick labels on people and situations, you’ll do yourself a big favour. Those screaming TV headlines aren't that helpful in reality. Other than keeping our thinking skills straitjacketed and malignantly spiking that adrenalin, that is!
- Digitize!: In the digital age, simple is the way to go. Now that unlabeling has freed up enormous amount of processing power in your brain, let’s build on this tempo. What may work better is to start with a numerical score or rank on the overall situation.
- Give a Score: On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the situation? (10 being worst). Don’t think too hard. What does it actually feel like? And what does it really look like?
- How Come?: On what basis have you assigned this score? Can you list 3 assumptions?
- What Else? List down the key facts that have resulted in this score. Bullet pointed and crisp is the way to go. Read out what you just wrote and scan it mentally for exaggerations, minimizing or discounting of facts and over-generalizations. Ask yourself: “What am I seeing and What am I not seeing”? These are traps we can easily fall into in an emotionally disturbed state. I will be posting a separate article on how this works and impacts our cognitive abilities and decision making skills. For now, simply scan and filter! Out they go into the dustbin, the ones that are muddying reality!
- What about them?: If this issue is not only impacting you: What do you think other stakeholders and people impacted by this failure are seeing? What score do you think they will assign? This is a guess at the moment, and you could later check with them of course. For now, put down what you think will be their overall perception.
- Jot down their likely assumptions too.
- Engage Multiple Senses please: Make sure you write this down or type it out. Writing works best for me, as I somehow feel the tactile senses are also getting into the act and giving me more perspective! Okay, maybe a quirk, I agree. But document it for sure, so you can see it “out there” with your eyes. And not keep meditating for it in the mystical hidden recesses of your mind!
- Deal with the Simian: That little mind is like a proverbial monkey sitting on your shoulder, and yelling: “Oh dear Lord, Get me that label please! Get it please”. Don’t dither. Time to coolly tell this monkey to shut up and get lost for now.
- You know, my experience has been that taking stock works brilliant when done in solitude. There are so many folks out there who love to give their unsolicited bytes to anyone who’d care to listen. Some of it may be well intentioned. Quite often it isn’t. The moment there is a crisis, they’re so eager to commiserate and offer quick fixes. While it isn't always bad, I suggest getting your own story clear before letting them assemble. At times, it is a committee of the confused that achieves precious little. I used to get reminded of the ‘Rudaali' custom in Rajasthani villages of North India, where professional mourners are hired for loud copious expression of grief when there is a death in the village. If there is any shortage of ‘Rudaalis’ in Rajasthan, help maybe just a call away in your nearby corporate house! Some customs live on so nicely, don't they? Not to suggest that you turn away help. Far from it. Get your mind cleared up and functioning before inviting others to cause more confusion, that’s all. If the Rudaalis are still around, tell them to take a selfie and entertain themselves!
- Congratulations, facts are in, drama is out. Now that’s a good and decent start, don’t you agree? What’s more we are applying method here! So, let’s now figure out what needs to be done.
- What do you want? And before that, let’s redefine our new outcome. What is the result that you want when the situation has been recovered fully? Assuming that all goes well, what do you see happening at the end of it all? Be crisp, and see if you can limit it to 3 or 4 clear outcomes at the end. Note down important sub-outcomes. Where possible, specify in numbers. Are you looking at 30% improvement in some key metric?
- While some of it may be obvious, I’d suggest that you still put it down in a documented form. Maybe you are looking at simply bringing the situation back into steady state. Or you want to give a better outcome and make it up to your stakeholders. Coming back to writing/typing. Again, it helps improve our thinking process. To have clarity of results and goals, and then to look at the situation from multiple angles. While I am presenting this in a fairly sequential manner, in reality you will keep going back into some of the earlier steps several times over. And that’s fine, after all this is open architecture. But putting down your ideas and understanding actually frees up your brain’s processing power. How do I know? I am telling you. Okay, if you really want to validate it, I am sure there may be some research paper somewhere out there. Go help yourself!
- Break Time: Now, take a short break. Maybe fifteen minutes if possible. Go for that quick walk or a jog. If you’re at home, I’d recommend a quick round of Yoga. Or even a trip to the gym. Listen to some elevating music. Maybe with inspiring lyrics. Look at nature. Have a yummy healthy smoothie. What about me? My favorite is pure tender coconut water. I can lose track of time and space with a coconut! Any or all of these can do wonders in our method. And pretty soon you’ll come to start enjoying solving this crisis. Now, isn't that superb? In fact, it may bring out the best in you, those hidden talents that even you forgot! Exercise brings in a rush of positive hormones to the brain, and I am certain that there is research to back it up. For now, simply take it as it is! You need those cute little endorphins more than ever before, for the next step.
- Getting from Here to There: Welcome back! Now simply compare what you have documented in “Taking Stock” and “Realign”. If you love using the whiteboard that’s even better. Place the two “pictures” side by side. “Where are we” versus “Where we want to be”. Now ask yourself to identify all options that can take you from here to there. As simple as that. While you’re at it, some of these questions are worth spending time on (modify and adapt them based on the situation, i.e., while working on an individual level issue for you versus at a team level):
- If I have all the freedom in the world, this is what I’d do before anything else: _____________(fill in the blanks; even if the answer looks ridiculous, never mind. Put it down).
- These are the best people who can give me more answers and clarity____________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- This is how it can fail again______________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- And this is what’s gonna keep me safe________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- The kind of help I need right now is ____________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- The skills and strengths that can do wonders are _______________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- The weaknesses that pose a serious threat are_________________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- The best way to spot problems early on are_________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________
- I simply can’t handle these_______________________________and ______________________ and ______________________________________
- I just don’t want to do these _________________________________and ______________________ and __________________________________________
- This is how I’ll get it done instead__________________________and ______________________ and ______________________________________________
- I secretly know that this is the answer, but have no clue what to do about it!______________________________________________________________
Stay the Course:
- This is all about building a system and structure that helps you regain and maintain the momentum. You begin the execution and stay in the game! Remember, we spoke about resilience and how it atrophies and drains out at the time of a crisis? We also spoke about choosing the right time to involve others. Well that time is here as well. Recovery from a failure obviously means some new ways and new approaches. Is there a way to adapt to this change seamlessly and maintain the momentum long after the initial excitement has ebbed? In fact, that’s precisely where many change management efforts go haywire.
- Well, staying the course is what actually makes the triumphant return all the more glorious. More on it in part two of this article!