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Failure is good for us... just ask an optimist

Consider a toddler learning to walk. She will fall over hundreds of times before planting one wobbly foot in front of the other to take her first steps. But she doesn’t give up, because it doesn't present itself as an option at that age. Over time, though, society instils in us the idea that failure is incompatible with success. Whereas in reality, failure is necessary for success. 

So can you be an optimist and be comfortable with failure? The short answer is, yes. Failure is inevitable and optimism can in fact help us embrace our mistakes and then learn from them.

Learned optimism

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, famously described learned optimism as a skill that can be cultivated. According to Seligman, this can be done by consciously challenging negative self-talk. 

But perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about re-learning optimism. A growing body of evidence suggests that optimism could be hard wired by evolution into the human brain. It would be very difficult to progress if we couldn’t imagine alternative realities in which we achieve our goals. 

The three Ps

In Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, he invites pessimists to challenge the way they react to adversity. Using what he calls the three Ps; permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation, Seligman looks at how people tend to explain to themselves why bad things happen. 

While pessimists are likely to view failure as permanent, optimists will see it as temporary (permanence). They are therefore more likely to bounce back from failure than pessimists. Pessimists tend to believe that failing one thing leads to failure in others, whereas optimists have the ability to compartmentalise failure (pervasiveness). And finally, where pessimists will tend to blame themselves for bad things happening (personalisation), optimists can separate themselves from negative events. 

Realistic optimism

Meditation and mindfulness teach us that while pain is inevitable, suffering is not. Learning to confront uncomfortable feelings instead of avoiding them can help us to deal with failure and see mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than roadblocks. Contrary to what some might assume, learning to confront painful or uncomfortable feelings is not a form of pessimism, but a very rational form of optimism. Realistic optimism combines positivity and pragmatism. Maintaining a positive attitude is important, but so too is preparing for failure. Once we anticipate failure, our egos won’t be so bruised when we fall flat because we have already planned to take a deep breath, sit with the unpleasant feelings and try again.  

Fail, fail and fail again

Of course, being comfortable with failure can be difficult and this is why meditation can be such a useful tool, as it gives us the chance to practice sitting with painful thoughts or feelings. It might sound a little odd, but the better we become at failing, the more success we are likely to achieve. As the famous author C.S. Lewis said, “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

So go forth and fail!

Not sure if this is deliberate or not. Resilience comes from adversity. Take risks, make mistakes, embrace them, learn from them. This photo was taken at one of our favourite TRP schools. – Source: The Resilience Project’s Facebook page.

Hugh van Cuylenburg

Hugh has been working in education for over 13 years. Starting out as a primary school teacher, he then moved into a position working in a secondary setting with disengaged adolescents. The highlight of his teaching career was the year he spent in the far north of India volunteering and living at an underprivileged school in the Himalayas. It was here that he discovered resilience in its purest form.

Inspired by this experience Hugh returned to Melbourne and commenced working on his own programs for schools. ‘The Resilience Project’ was born. Having completed his post grad. studies into mental health and resilience, Hugh has developed and facilitated programs for over 300 schools Australia wide. In 2015, the National Rugby League asked Hugh to design and implement a program for every club in the competition. Off the back of the success of the NRL program, Cricket Australia were quick to follow for all their professional sides. Hugh has also worked closely with the Australian Netball team and 11 of the AFL sides.

Hugh is now working closely with corporate and non for profit organisations to help promote positive mental health strategies in the work place.