What do you do when you spend weeks, months or even years working on something that just doesn’t… work? What story do you tell yourself?
Imagine you’re walking across a rope bridge that you’ve walked across a hundred times. As you’re crossing, you suddenly feel one of the planks snap beneath your feet, and watch it plunge into the rushing river below. You freeze, with your foot suspended in mid-air. In that moment, what you do next is incredibly important. If you panic, you might end up in the river too. Or, you might freeze in place, unable to move. Either way, you are in trouble.
How do you get moving again? You have to tell yourself a story about all of the times you’ve successfully crossed the bridge in the past, and remind yourself that you’ve got this.
If you work long-arc projects, you probably know the frustration and pain of having a project fail to live up to expectations. After expending so much time, energy, and focus on something you care about, it can be devastating when it just doesn’t click. What you do next is very important. The story you tell yourself in those moments may define the next few years of your life and work.
Unfortunately, if you aren’t intentional about that story, one will be chosen for you. In Louder Than Words, I wrote about how false narratives can draw you off course and prevent you from standing firm in the face of uncertainty. The narratives you tell yourself define your life and work.
Psychologist Martin Seligman explained that there are three ways in which our internal beliefs or narratives become damaging: we make them personal, pervasive, and permanent.
Personal: I failed, so I must be a failure.
Pervasive: I failed in this instance, so I’ll probably fail in every instance.
Permanent: I failed once, so I’ll probably fail always.
Of course, each of these three narratives is a lie, but in the moment it feels very true. The narrative fills the vacuum previously filled by our unmet expectations. It’s collateral damage we experience when walking through the refining fires in the depth of the valley of the creative process.
I’ve walked through these moments of failure in my work, and I know how difficult it is to believe “you’ve got this.” I’ve reminded myself that I’ve walked this “bridge” a hundred times in the past, and I can do it again. More than anything, I’ve tried to ensure that the “3 P’s” don’t define how I see my circumstances. As I wrote in Louder Than Words,
“Pushing to the edge of your ability is equivalent to stretching to the point of defeat, which means that failure will be a frequent companion on the road to eventual success.”
If you want to succeed in the long run, you must be willing to fail in the short-run. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not pushing yourself. If you’re not pushing yourself, you will have regrets.
In the moment of failure, your next step is critical. What do you do?
1. Assess what you’ve learned, so you’ll never make the same mistake again.
2. Immediately re-focus your time and energy on the next objective. Don’t sulk.
3. Move forward quickly, so you don’t leave room for narratives to derail you.
4. Schedule time with other people who will remind you of who you are and what you are capable of.
And in the midst of this, what story do you tell yourself?
“You’ve got this. You’ve done it before. Now, go do it again.”