The Covid-19 pandemic has caused disaster around the world. At the time of writing this, there have been 39,023,292 confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the world, including 1,099,586 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation. India alone has seen 7,432,680 confirmed cases with 112,998 deaths. Apart from the health and humanitarian crisis that Covid-19 has unleashed, there has been an unprecedented economic collapse. According to World Bank forecasts in June, the global economy will shrink by 5.2% this year, the deepest recession since the Second World War.
Such a recession will see even more jobs lost and more businesses crashing. It’s already happening in India and elsewhere, bringing to light a massive mental health crisis, where people struggle to deal with job losses and worse. There are many reasons for this, of course, but I believe that one factor has an overwhelming impact. That is the generally accepted idea of failure.
Society sees failure as something terrible to be avoided at all costs. To be sure, nobody wants to fail; we don’t want to lose money, business, and even status. But we should also not let failure shatter us. This pandemic has brought many stories of failure and loss. But it has also brought out stories of resilience and grit. There are individuals and companies that are making the best of a bad job and picking up the pieces to rebuild their businesses from scratch.
Success from failure
One of the CEOs I used to coach in New Delhi had a successful business as a vendor to the hospitality industry. The lockdown saw the collapse of that sector, and as a result, this businessman stared at failure. He had a large team of workers. Some of them left to return to their home villages, but a large number stayed back. With no business coming in from hotels, he thought he would have to let his team go, even though unemployment would mean disaster for many of them. That was around when the Delhi local authorities were sanitising houses and apartment blocks where they suspected infection could spread. “I can do that,” he told me. He trained his team, began by assisting the municipal authorities, then started taking contracts from apartment complexes and offices to sanitise homes and workplaces. Today, his order book is full.
I’m sure all of us know of similar stories. I know a businessman in Riyadh who changed his restaurant business into home delivering ready-to-cook meals, focussing on steak dinners. The response has been fantastic, he told me. He capitalised on the tremendous enthusiasm that people showed for cooking as a family activity. Social media, in the early days of lockdown, was flooded with photos and videos of families coming together over cooking. The kitchen regained its place as the heart of the home. And when families received the elements of gourmet meals and simply had to put things together, they found cooking more pleasurable. Much more was being cooked than food.
These are not just feel-good stories about people who miraculously succeeded. These are stories about people who did not let a black swan event derail their businesses. To be sure, they pivoted into different areas, but remember, they could do this because they did not let failure swamp them. They learnt from failure because they studied it. The crisis or failure made them stronger. I call it the breakdown before the breakthrough. Our religion and philosophy tells us about Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Philosophers and saints explain that if there is no destruction of the old and unnecessary, there can be no new creation. That is how we should look at failure—not as destruction, but as a beginning.
Study your failure
This is one of the lessons I have learnt over time, and is something I advise all the leaders that I coach. It is easy to let failure consume you and make you risk averse. But what I have found is that if you study failure in a clinical and objective way, you will understand what you need to do to succeed.
If you have failed, even if you think you know what went wrong, step back and dispassionately analyse it. What went wrong? Was it something you did? Was it something you allowed? Was it something beyond your control? You may learn things about yourself that you are not proud of, but it’s important to understand before you can conquer.
Remember, to learn from failure, you need a degree of humility. You need to be able to accept that you have made mistakes, that you were maybe too arrogant or overconfident. Identify where you went wrong, and be humble enough to say “I made a mistake”. It will help you get over your sense of failure faster than if you avoid all mention of your mistakes.
Mental models matter
Training your mind is a vital step in this process. This kind of mental training involves change; it often involves changing deep-rooted beliefs. Why does belief matter? If you believe you are generally successful in whatever you do, you view failure as an exception and work through it to succeed. If, however, you believe you are unlucky and cannot succeed, you will not only accept failure, you will not do anything to avoid it or go past it.
In his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, author Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman talks about the importance of positive psychology. He explains how people can learn to become more optimistic by challenging negative self-talk and replacing pessimistic thoughts with more positive ones. More important, in this context, an optimist is one who doesn’t let failure get him down.
Many of you would have seen this play out in your workplaces, where a person with talent is not necessarily the most successful one. The person who believes that he or she has ability is the one who gets ahead. The example most often cited is that of two identically qualified salespersons whose job is to make calls to potential customers and convert those calls into sales. One salesperson, A, is an optimist, the other, B...not so much.
Now, B starts the process of calling, assuming nobody will answer. When someone does answer, B’s self-talk instantly tells him that the person is going to be angry at being interrupted. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the person may yell at B for interrupting a workday. And so it goes, till B is convinced about the futility of making any more calls, and stops calling.
Then there’s salesperson A, who is a realist and knows some people may yell, others may not answer the call. But A is sure someone will finally respond positively, and continues calling till she makes a sale. And then makes another. Naturally, A is the more successful salesperson.
Never give up
So, how does a person challenge negative self-talk? We all have immense capacity for change within us, but to start the process, we need to clean up the dust of the myths that we construct—the myths of success or failure, the myths of ability, the myths of perfectionism, and so on. These myths work as a mental block to change. Once we understand that these are myths and are blocking our progress, breaking the myths becomes easy.
Success is largely in the mind, so changing the way we think is critical. But that’s not going to be enough. Along with thinking of success, we need to practice for it. Train yourself in whatever it is that you do. Learn about the nuts and bolts. There’s a line that’s popular with people who play competitive sports: Practice as if you’ve never won, play as if you’ve never lost. That’s something we would all do well to remember.
Reading and research alone is not enough. It’s important to get back onto the saddle after you’ve fallen. If I bake a disastrously bad cake, I can throw it away and then read dozens of recipes and watch videos on how to bake a perfect cake. But till I go to the kitchen and begin weighing out the flour and the butter, I cannot call myself a baker.
Learn from your mistakes, and go out and try again. Maybe you’ll fail again. Or, more likely, you’ll succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
Views are personal. The author is a Senior Leadership Coach at Saudi Telecom.