Failure. Is it temporary or permanent? Is it an experience or who you are? Do you learn from it or get crushed by it? Do you get traumatized, bounce back, or grow and become better off?

Dealing with failureThe April issue of the Harvard Business Review is entitled “The Failure Issue: How to Understand It, Learn From It, and Recover From It.” The editor writes: “Most of us…find it hard to draw useful lessons from our missteps. We tend to fail at failure. (My teenage son and his friends would call this an ‘epic fail’).” The issue features articles on:

  • “Strategies for Learning from Failure”
  • “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success”
  • “Failing by Design”
  • “How to Avoid Catastrophe”
  • An interview with (Procter and Gamble CEO) A.G. Lafley (“widely regarded as one of the most successful CEOs in recent history”) on “I Think of My Failures as a Gift” and
  • “Failure Chronicles” featuring stories from eight senior leaders in various industries

The article that really stands out for me is the ongoing pioneering work of Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been a long time follower of Seligman’s outstanding work. Entitled “Building Resilience,” this article draws from his new book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.

In the article he reports on a $145 million initiative involving 900,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army being trained in a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. CSF has three components:

“…a test for psychological fitness, self-improvement courses available following the test, and “master resilience training” (MRT) for drill sergeants. These are based on PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment — the building blocks of resilience and growth….MRT focuses on enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships — core competencies for any successful manager.”

CSF helps the soldiers who fall apart under extreme adversity such as the stress of combat and army life, avoid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s also geared to helping those soldiers who bounce back to depression and anxiety after major stress toward higher growth. The aim is to have these two groups join the third group of soldiers who “show post-traumatic growth. They, too, first experience depression and anxiety, often exhibiting full-blown PTSD, but within a year they are better off than they were before the trauma. These are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’.”

One of the mandatory modules on post-traumatic growth is very relevant for all of us dealing with personal and professional traumatic adversity, setbacks, and failure. Seligman writes that it:

“…begins with the ancient wisdom that personal transformation comes from a renewed appreciation of being alive, enhanced personal strength, acting on new possibilities, improved relationships, or spiritual deepening. The module interactively teaches soldiers about five elements known to contribute to post-traumatic growth:

  1. Understanding the response to trauma (read “failure”), which includes shattered beliefs about the self, others, and the future
  2. Reducing anxiety through techniques for controlling intrusive thoughts and images
  3. Engaging in constructive self-disclosure. Bottling up trauma can lead to a worsening of physical and psychological symptoms, so soldiers are encouraged to tell their stories
  4. Creating a narrative in which the trauma is seen as a fork in the road that enhances the appreciation of paradox—loss and gain, grief and gratitude, vulnerability and strength
  5. Articulating life principles”

Failure happens. Failure is life. Failing to deal effectively with failure is where we can truly fail.

Further Reading: