My boss often tells the story of how a woman at a business-help conference changed his life.
The woman was a corporate performance coach who had been invited to talk on stage about a CEO research project she had led.
Her question to the audience was this: “What is it that separates the top 10% of CEOs from the rest? What makes them so much better at their job, and their companies so much better performing, on every metric?”
The audience fired back answers.
Years in industry? No.
Personality type? No.
“After all of our research”, she continued, “we discovered it was something so very simple”.
“The top CEOs all view adversity as a positive — they treat setbacks as a learning experience, and that spreads throughout the whole organisation”, she explained.
At the time, my boss was facing a series of tough challenges with his fledging healthcare startup.
The woman’s talk clicked for him immediately, and he went away with a fresh perspective that helped him win those fights and many since then.
The thing with this principle — view adversity as a positive, treat setbacks as a learning experience — is that it sounds so obvious, cliché almost, that it seems insignificant.
But actually it’s a crucial ingredient for growth and success on a personal level too. It helps you with focus and to become more mentally resilient.
Meanwhile, incorporating it into your life is less a case of repeating it as a mantra and hoping it becomes habit, but more the result of undergoing a greater shift in mindset.
It’s the result of acknowledging that what you are currently capable of doing/producing/achieving — right here, right now — is the direct result of what you’re equipped with (knowledge, skills, money, experience, perspective, network, your physical environment etc) at that very time*, and adjusting your expectations accordingly.
For simplicity, let’s call this our *“current resources”** from hereon.
Instead, we tend to set our expectations for our present-day actions based on our end goal. The end goal becomes the reference point for failure and success not just for the whole journey, but for each of the intermediate steps on the way there too.
However, this is misguided, because at any given point we can only move on to the next step, and that next step is already set in stone (based on a combination of our current resources and exogenous factors out of our control).
So by looking beyond the next step and at our end goal, we let our expectations get ahead of ourselves.
The outcome is that when we do complete what we are immediately working on, the result falls short of expectations. We feel frustrated, like an opportunity has been missed, like we’ve failed.
Sometimes, this can take a long time to get over. It can hinder our momentum and prevent us from reflecting on what actually went wrong, further hindering progress.
But the truth is, we haven’t failed. We have moved forward on our journey to the next step — it just may not feel like it.
Whatever work you put out — or whatever state you find yourself in — is simply a reflection of your current resources. So when we fall short on our expectations, what’s actually happening is we are receiving feedback that our current resources weren’t quite enough, and that in itself means we learn.
We learn what we didn’t know. We hone the skill that wasn’t quite sharp enough. We meet that person that opens a new door for us. We curb the habit that was dragging us down.
We gain precisely what will help enable us to achieve the end goal — we just didn’t realise before that it was needed.
On the graphic below, let’s say that wherever we are right now is point A.
C is where we think our next step is—i.e. by putting our current resources to work, we think we will get here next. Perhaps it’s the ultimate end goal, an intermediate milestone goal, or simply your perceived next step.
However, the reality is you don’t have the resources currently to quite make C. You can only get to B, and only from B can you then get to C.
Having expected to get to C you actually end up at B on your next move. You feel disappointed — you’re facing “adversity”, a “setback”.
However the very process of going from A to B has equipped you with the extra resources required to then get you from B to C — the additional experience, skill proficiency, knowledge etc.
It took you one extra step than you expected to get to C, but that step was always there, you just hadn’t anticipated it.
In practice, there may be more steps than just B on your way to C. What you thought was C may actually be D (or E, F, G or Z) i.e. success felt within touching distance but it’s actually miles away (it always was, you just didn’t realise — at least now you’re in the know, meaning you’re one step closer to getting there).
So perhaps our graphic is better off like this, where you need to go through B (what feels like failure but actually isn’t) to then get to C, before you can then get to D:
What’s perhaps most helpful in all of this is if we stop looking at our journey as single-dimensional.
“One step forwards, two steps back” is how we usually describe a setback, when what is actually more appropriate would be “one step up, two steps down, three steps forwards”.
Nothing goes up in a straight line — your life is no different.
The main thing is to embrace what you otherwise see as a failure as feedback for you to learn from, and as one step forward in the right direction, because that’s what it is.
Seeing it any different only holds you back, so it’s pointless.
Once you start looking at things like this, you completely redefine the meaning of failure. You completely redefine the situations you find yourself in and your ability to move forward from them.
What others view as a negative, you now see as making you stronger and getting you one step closer to where you want to be.
You benefit from less stress on the downside and fewer disruptions to your journey, which translates into more focus and progress overall.
The most important time to embrace these principles is of course when you hit that point of perceived failure — a setback, frustration, adversity.
But it’s also the most difficult time to do so.
At least by being clear in advance that failure isn’t really failure, you can, over time, reach the point where you instinctively remind yourself of that fact in situations when things haven’t gone “right”.
I’ve found you can reach this point faster through the practice of broader mindfulness techniques, like those taught on the Headspace app.
When we say failure/adversity we usually think of big events that have obvious impact on our life and/or projects.
However, the silent obstacles we face on a more regular basis can be just as deadly.
I look at the Medium homepage and am flooded with great articles giving expert, never-before-shared insights into all sorts of interesting niche topics.
I’ve wanted to start writing for a long time — so I can share my ideas and hopefully provide value to other people, and build interesting connections in the process. But with everyone on Medium contributing such new and unique perspectives, what I want to write about (i.e. this article) doesn’t feel worth the effort.
This is perceived adversity at the first hurdle — probably one of the most common.
I’m ignoring what my current resources are (that I’ve spent almost 0% of my life honing my writing skills) and thus I’m subconsciously setting expectations for my first pieces of work too high, and it almost made me fail before I’d even started.
But the truth is there is no failure — there is only me and my current ability, things to learn and a single next step: To write this article as it comes out, learn from the process, learn from the talented writers whose articles I read, and then write another of my own.
Only that way will I be able to bridge the gap between my current resources and my end goal.
Two weeks ago, we (Dengpao Media) unsuccessfully pitched for a big translation project for a leading China-based VC.
In the end it came down to price — and we were miles apart.
I had put in a good amount of time and effort modelling the logistics and pricing so initially felt pretty pissed off when we didn’t get the job — blaming them in my head for not seeing the value in what we offer.
But in that moment I reminded myself of this “treat setbacks as a learning experience” principle.
On reflection, I had set my initial expectations too high thinking that we would be able to get this job based on our current resources (our branding, market positioning, operational setup, market experience etc).
At point A (preparing the quote), I was gunning straight for what was point C (getting the job), without acknowledging there was a point B in between (learning information about the client’s demands and the market in general that would have allowed us to either win the pitch or realise from the outset that we weren’t a good match and save the time and effort of pitching).
Acknowledging that point B had been there all along, I could only mellow and move to assessing what we’d learned from the process (i.e. going from A to B), which included developing a refined operational model that could be used to more effectively execute large-scale translation projects, as well as cut a good 25% from our cost base.