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Recovering From Total Failure and Demoralization

A Personal Perspective: A scaffolding for success that starts with you, now.

Key points

  • The "Scaffolding of Success" is a set of guidelines for living, flourishing, and working towards your dream.
  • One response to feeling overwhelmed is despair, and overcoming despair requires reigniting motivation.
  • It can be motivating to stay centered, examine how we're feeling, remind ourselves of our values, and act when we have control.

Are you feeling down and demoralized these days? If not, well, good for you. If so, I have the complete and total solution to all of your troubles, worries, and concerns. It’s a three-step process. And.

I lie. I do not have all the answers. But I do have one answer to share with you. I remember that I have a roadmap for times when I feel like a failure. Or rather, I have something better than a roadmap: I have a scaffolding to help me go from failure to success.

Do you recall the Scaffolding of Success? It was my hard-won distillation of several years of research into the psychology and sometimes pop-psychology or pseudo-psychology of success. This overlapped with the psychology of happiness and flourishing, the realm of positive psychology, the branch of psychology that developed as an alternative to traditional psychology and psychotherapy. The traditional approach looked at what goes wrong in human personality and development; positive psychology looks at what goes right, and what helps us mortals flourish. Happily, the branches are all overlapping in a multitude of Venn Diagrammable ways.

To review, the Scaffolding of Success™ is meant to provide not an exact recipe for success but a framework or methodology, or heck, you could even get very 1990s about it and call it a lifestyle, for crafting your own definition of success. Because, readers, as so often happens with the big questions of life, there is more than one answer.

The planks of the scaffolding are as follows:

  • Permission: As in, give yourself permission to define success as you decide.
  • Goals: Set goals related to your definition of success.
  • Centering: Practice activities that help you center yourself in the present moment, which is, of course, the only moment we have in which to make decisions.
  • Managing the Mind: Use strategies to wrangle your self-doubt, your motivation, and your conflicting emotions.
  • Help From Others: Find the team, one person or several, who can help you believe in yourself.
  • Values and Purpose: Identify your values and set goals in alignment with them so that you feel your life has purpose.

This list isn’t meant to be sequential. In practice, it’s a way to live, by working on multiple planks at the same time to help construct your successful life.

As so many wise people have said, it’s the process, not the outcome, that matters. Of course, outcomes indeed matter, but wise people are trying to remind us that the process through which we move towards our desired outcome is life. Life is what we do every day, every moment. It’s particularly important to remember to focus on the journey when the outcome desired may be quite a long time coming. When my ultimate goal might be beyond my natural lifetime, I’ve got to make the process worthwhile.

So, how to get up when you’re down? How to motivate yourself from despondency? What to do when you think the answer is to run away, find a way to buy citizenship in another country, or just watch Netflix and be comatose? How to rally when you have kids, and you don’t want them to be totally incapacitated by cynicism and demoralization. How to embrace Chumbawamba’s anthem, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Looking at where I am today (wondering what TV show to binge-watch next), weighed down by despair but also seeing the familiar light of resilience rising on my horizon exhorting me to look beyond the clouds, I review my Scaffolding of Success. I recommend to myself, and also to you, readers, focusing on three planks: centering, managing the mind, and values and purpose.


Of course, we know we have to get up. We’re not supposed to lie around wallowing indefinitely. But isn’t a little wallowing OK?

Of course. It’s even necessary. As long as it’s productive wallowing. What do I mean by that? I guess what I mean is what Mary Pipher, Ph.D., points out in her recent opinion piece about how to have a good day when things are generally sucking the wazoo. Productive wallowing is wallowing that involves actually facing your feelings. Like really getting in there and being present to feel them and name them if you can. (Apparently, we humans are not particularly nuanced about what emotions we’re feeling; on the other hand, the feelings I am feeling these days are not particularly nuanced, so they are easily named.)

Why is naming and knowing important? Because even these most awful emotions are just passing feelings, and it’s by examining them that we can understand they are not all-powerful. They do not have to overpower us forever, and they are not the boss of us. To use a common meditation metaphor, our mind is like the sky, and thoughts and feelings are like the weather, passing by, changing all the time; yet we have a permanent sky behind (above?) all this weather. As we look for breaks in the clouds and observe them passing by, we realize we, the observers, are capable of encompassing not only the weather, the clouds, but also the sky that contains them. We are bigger than the weather.

And of course, whenever I’m knocked down, I find it helpful to remember Stephen Covey’s wisdom about the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern.

Hope Perlman
Source: Hope Perlman

Notice that the Circle of Influence is inside the Circle of Concern because it is smaller. Our circle of concern is all the things that concern us, that we’re concerned about. Fill in the blanks. Our Circle of Influence is the locus in which we can be effective. Covey says, as you all surely remember, that we need to focus on what we can impact with our actions. The good news is that the more we hone that ability to focus on our Circle of Influence, the more it will expand outward in our Circle of Concern.

So, how then, when we are overwhelmed, and multiple strange, vicious, winged dinosaur-birds (have you watched Stranger Things? Or am I talking about something else, metaphorically?) are attacking you, do you focus on your Circle of Influence? Well, as we all know, at the most granular level, the only thing over which we have any control or influence at all is how we express ourselves in reaction to what we’re feeling at any one moment. So, if in a particular moment, I am reacting to overwhelming bad things by collapsing in despondency, I can notice that. Then I can notice, as I did this morning, that the despondency exists also with an all-too-human need to feel better. At this point, I notice that it's time to act. Taking action is of course the antidote to wallowing. This brings us to the next plank because in short, I need motivation.

Managing Your Mind

To get through life, to put one foot in front of another, I need motivation. To hope to eventually fight off the vicious, winged dinosaur birds, is necessary for survival. At this point, the article I read a few weeks ago about affirmations comes in handy.

Affirmations. We all remember affirmations. Positive affirmations to cure what ails you, to bolster you, to help you achieve your goals. They’re hokey and cringy as they’re usually expressed, and they’re completely stupid as often expressed (The Secret, anyone?). But apparently, scientific research has shown that affirmations do work. As this article in The Washington Post explains, however, these are not the typically satirized affirmations. These are not generic pablum like, “You’re the best!” No, the affirmations that work are specific and they’re helpful because they help motivate you. I don’t know about you, readers, but I need some motivation these days.

A helpful affirmation is something like

  • I will do my part to fight injustice.
  • I will try to improve every day.
  • My self-esteem is healthy.
  • I am developing self-confidence.

These are not pabulum. These are actual do-ables. Repeating them reminds us that we can make things happen.

Value and Purpose

Affirmations are effective when they’re rooted in what matters to you. So we’re talking about understanding our deepest values. At a moment of failure, when my values seem to have been trampled over almost to death, it’s important to peel them up off the ground and dust them off and remember that they are immortal, and worth living by.

These affirmations work when they’re authentic. So if you’re feeling really low, an affirmation that is too rah-rah confident will not feel authentic to you. As the article says, something like “I am trying to believe in myself” can be a great affirmation to start with. It’s not grandiose. It’s simple. It’s a hope for a different state of mind.

Maybe for me, in my demoralized state, my affirmations are simple, humble goads to motivation.

  • I am trying to believe that I can positively impact our political decision-making.
  • I hope to make the future better than the present.

Something like that is how I start to get up off the ground. How about you?


Chiu, Allyson. Washington Post, May 2, 2022.How to Make Self-Affirmation Work, Based on Science.

Pipher, Mary, Ph.D. How I Build a Good Day When I'm in Despair of the World. The New York Times, June 28, 2022.

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