How do you respond to failure?

NB: The target audience was high school basketball players, but the content is relevant for anyone.

How do you respond when you fail? You might be pretty good at your job, but you will eventually reach some point where you are working with people who are better than you.

You will experience this in high school and college as well. You might see grades on your exams and papers that are much, much lower than you’re used to. You all are away from your parents and the friends of your neighborhood for the first time, in a culture that’s wildly different, and more dangerous, than the one you grew up in. You’ll have to deal with uncertainty and rejection in your relationships with your peers.

As a group, your interpretations of these events will differ dramatically. If your coach doesn’t play you, some of you will say, “The coach hates me, what’s the point of trying” or “I’ll never be good enough,” and some of you will say, “I need to work harder.” After getting a D on your first midterm, some of you will say “I didn’t work hard enough” or “The teacher was in a grumpy mood,” and some of you will say “I’ll never be a good student,” or “I’m not as smart as everyone else.” If you ask a cute girl out and she says no, some of you will say “I got tongue tied,” and some of you will say, “She said no because I’m an unlikeable person.” If you get elected for a leadership position, some of you will say, “I was elected because I’m a good leader,” and some of you will say, “I got lucky all of the other candidates were awful.”

The way you respond to events is called your explanatory style. We call the first group of people optimists – people who believe they are responsible for positive events, and that others are responsible for negative events, and the second group – who blame themselves for negative events and don’t take credit for positive events – pessimists (to figure out your own style, you can try this online quiz – if the bottom score is above 6, you’re optimistic, 1 or below is pessimistic, and in between is average). Here’s the surprising part: Relative to high school GPA and SAT scores, optimists outperform the average student, and pessimists underperform1. A pessimistic explanatory style can hurt even more, however. Pessimists are at a much greater risk of sinking into depression. They’re more likely to become sick, and have a lower life expectancy than optimists.

The good news is that you can change your explanatory style. The technique involves noticing your automatic negative thoughts – “I can never think of anything to say” or “I’m not as smart as everyone else,” disputing those thoughts by remembering contrary evidence, providing a different, less permanent, explanation for the event, and finally distracting yourself from the pessimistic thoughts in the first place, giving yourself more control over what you think. This technique has the power to permanently change your explanatory style, and help you realize your full potential. Mastering this skill is more important than learning how to score with your weak hand or learning how to rebound. If you can master optimism, you won’t be vulnerable to a run by the opposing team. You’ll respond to getting beaten by working harder, not complaining. You’ll give yourself full credit when you win and learn to work harder when you lose.

While we all plan for the best, and expect to have fun on the court, it’s not going to be rosy all the time. When things hit the fan, it will be helpful to remember the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember, and how you remember it.”

1. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, page 151-152.

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