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Why Do You Think You've Failed?

How we decide on failure and how it distorts our path.

Key points

  • We are driven either by our ego or by the task when assessing personal performance.
  • Task-oriented assessments lead to recognition of progress rather than perception of failure.
  • If we perceive we have failed we look for evidence to back us up and ignore evidence to the contrary.
  • Cognitive distortion leaves us looking at outcomes as binary and not seeing the grey area in the middle.

Despite teaching other people how to tell stories in their presentations, Rachel Maunder believed that she didn’t have a story of her own worthy of sharing and that the lack of that story was holding her back. After much soul searching, she eventually realised that her story is simply how she came to do what she does, however unexceptional it might seem to her.

She crafted a brand-new keynote talk incorporating that journey and delivered it for the first time at a virtual event during the pandemic.

Despite her excitement and high hopes, the response to the talk didn’t leave Rachel feeling positive. The remote nature of the talk, and the fact that she had finished by asking people to reflect, meant that she was greeted with thoughtful silence rather than the applause and conversation with participants that may have been more likely to follow a presentation in person.

She came away discouraged, feeling that she had failed. Even when the event organisers told her a week later that they thought the talk had gone well, she discounted their feedback as courtesy and shifted her attention away from developing the new keynote, towards other, non-speaking-related areas of her business.

Eighteen months later Rachel was attending the Global Speakers Summit in Dublin. At the event, she was approached by someone she didn’t know personally who told her how much that virtual presentation had resonated and what she had taken from it. Later, during a coffee break, a speaker from New York told her that she had been on the call and had loved the talk.

Those two bits of feedback, unprompted and some time after the event, forced Rachel to sit back and reflect. Why had she convinced herself that she had failed? On what evidence had she based her conviction?

She realised that she had acted purely on a self-imposed perception and then had sought evidence to back up that belief. She had ignored the positive feedback from the organisers because it didn’t fit her view of her performance and focused instead on the lack of response from others on the call.

Roberto Forzoni, a performance psychologist who has worked with a number of leading sports teams and high-performing sports stars like tennis player Andy Murray, explains that we tend to assess our performance based on either ego-orientation or task-orientation. When we are ego-oriented, we focus more on what people think about us or what we think about ourselves, rather than how well we perform the task itself. And that impacts our view of what constitutes success or failure.

“The great Australian athlete Herb Elliott, in a great book called Winning Attitudes, asked Olympic athletes to define what their targets were so that they could define failure," Forzoni observes. "The athletes told him, ‘I just want to run the best I can’.

“Elliott thought that was strange. I do as well, because what is your best? If you just say ‘I want to run fast’ and you've come down to three seconds under your target then you can say, ‘I've done my best, I didn't fail, I was okay’.

“If you're an athlete, you might want to define what that failure is, so you know when you fail or when you didn't. But it gives you some feedback on where you are now and where you can get to. In sport, maybe you don't achieve a certain level of performance, but your performance is improving all the time. Is that failure? You might say, ‘Yes, because I'm not winning’, but you're improving all the time.”

The NBA basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked in a press conference last month whether he viewed this season as a failure. His response was insightful. He asked the reporter whether he got a promotion in his job every year. The reporter said no, to which Giannis responded, “So every year you work is a failure? No? Every year you work, you work towards a goal. It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success.”

Rachel felt that she had failed because her focus was on the perception of her presentation, both of her performance and the audience response to her talk. If she had taken a step back to reflect on what she wanted to achieve through the talk, how she wanted to move or motivate people, she may have changed her measurement of success or failure.

Her ego-orientation led to her to focus on the applause, or immediate feedback. Yet the real measure of success in her task was the feedback many months later from people for whom the talk still resonated and who had taken positive action as a result.

Forzoni shares why he thinks Rachel felt discouraged: “In cognitive behavioural therapy, we talk about cognitive distortion. In your mind you distort something that's happened, you perceive it as black or white, succeed or fail. You miss out on that grey area in the middle.

“You might overgeneralise. Having felt that you failed in that task today, you then feel that you’re going to fail at everything. What Rachel could have done instead was seek some feedback from some of the people that were on the call. ‘What did you learn from it? What could I have done better?’ By doing that and not assuming knowledge of what people were thinking, her view of the result becomes less distorted.

“Ego is probably the number-one aspect that defines whether you think you’ve achieved success or failure. If you take your ego out of the way, you can just look at performance or achievement level and you'll know whether you're improving over time. Things get better if you can handle situations better. And that would be a success.”

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