Nothing magical ever happens inside your comfort zone. Period. As a former Navy SEAL and serial entrepreneur, I’ve experienced no shortage of suffering, adversity and setbacks. SEAL training has about the same attrition rate as start-ups do. But the most resilient entrepreneurs and business leaders accept the potential for failure (and actual failures) as simply part of the process. They understand that building something great won’t come without some pain and suffering. As Colin Powell once said, “Success is the result of hard work, persistence and learning from failure.”
My very first big-stage speaking engagement was at the Inc. 500 Annual Awards Conference in Scottsdale, AZ in front of over 600 people. Oh, and I was sharing the stage with none other than world-renowned speaker and author, Simon Sinek. Which I found out upon arrival. No pressure at all! But I did my thing, people clapped and that was that. No big deal. Easy day.
About a week later, I had a call with Eric Schurenberg, editor-in-chief of Inc. Magazine (Inc. Media) to debrief. Being the feedback-craving former SEAL that I am, I asked what he thought. Admittedly, I was teeing up the ask for speaking at future Inc. events. After a brief pause of awkward silence he said, “Well Brent, it wasn’t good. It just wasn’t polished. You seemed unprepared. It was just kind of all over the place.”
Bam! It was like getting punched in the face. Speaking was something I felt I could find a passion for, but clearly wasn’t good at yet. I’m thinking b-b-b-b-but everyone clapped, and I think a couple people even stood up! Maybe this is just his opinion!
Surprise. Anger. Disappointment…then finally, acceptance. Realization. Motivation. I vowed never to be unprepared again. Now I speak on average seventy-five times a year all over the world and religiously maintain a very specific preparation process. Eric’s feedback was painful at first, but then motivating. It was an awakening. It was exactly the same when the SEAL instructors would tell us that we should just quit. That training would only get worse – why put ourselves through all that? As a result, some would actually quit. Others found the fire in their gut. Just enough fire to embrace the pain and suffering that much more.
Before their big wins, some of the world’s most successful people experience epic failure – I’m not comparing myself to these people, I’m just saying. We celebrate their success but often overlook the path that got them there. A path that is often marked with failure. Their crowning achievements stem from drive and determination as much as ability. Persistence and mental fortitude are the difference between success and failure.
As Thomas Edison once said, “I have never failed. I have only found 10,000 ways that something won’t work.” But let’s face it. Failure is no fun. Nobody sets out to fail or tells themselves gee I can’t wait to take a faceplant on this project so I learn some valuable lessons. Of course not. We don’t tell ourselves we hope we get fired from our dream job so we can build some emotional and psychological resilience. The lessons learned come after the depression, disappointment and anger wears off and enlightenment slowly starts to set in. IF we choose to let it do so.
There are endless examples. Oprah Winfrey is a billionaire with her own TV network and a penchant for giving away cars but was fired from her first TV job as an anchor in Baltimore for being – get this – too passionate about the stories. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off stage many times early in his career, with close friends and family telling him to take life more seriously and choose a real career. As we all know he is now one of the most famous comedians of all time.
And can you imagine your childhood without Disney? Well that could easily have been reality if Walt had listened to his former newspaper editor. The editor told Walt he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas.’ Undeterred, old Walt went on to create the cultural icon that bears his name.
Failure is usually a fairly demoralizing and upsetting experience. Failure can alter your perception and make you believe things that simply aren’t true. Unless you learn to respond to failure in psychologically adaptive ways, it can paralyze you, demotivate you and limit your likelihood of future successes.
There are eight failure realities that you must understand that will allow you to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Realities that will help you build grit.
Reality 1: Failure makes the same goal seem less attainable. In one study at a special operations sniper school, instructors had the students fire at targets from the same distance on an unmarked range. They then had the students estimate the distance to the targets. Students who scored lower (fewer target hits than others) believed the targets to be significantly further out than students who scored the highest. Failure distorts perception if you allow it to. The good news is that there are ways to avoid this.
Reality 2: Failure alters your perception of your abilities. As much as failure can distort your perception of goals, it can also alter your assumptions about ability. I’ve seen students who quit SEAL training or fail the selection process fall into deep depression – sometimes even suicidal. At my college, SMU, some girls that were rejected from their desired sorority transferred schools. Yes, you read that correctly. Get some real problems, ladies! Failure can make us feel differently about our skills, intelligence, desirability and capabilities. Simply acknowledging this is the first step to self-correction.
Reality 3: Failure makes you feel helpless. According to psychologists, this is a mental defense mechanism. When we fail, the brain sends signals making us feel temporarily helpless – it’s an emotional battlefield injury so to speak. Like when a toddler touches a hot stove – the brain says whoa buddy, don’t do that again. The same applies with failure. When we allow ourselves to be convinced that we are helpless, we successfully avoid future failures. But that’s actually what makes you a failure – when you listen to the voices and rob yourself of future success.
Reality 4: Setbacks can cause a “fear of failure” complex. People often convince themselves they have a fear of success, but it’s actually a good old fashion fear of failing. A mechanism for avoiding feeling bad when we fail. Rather than working on improving their ability, skills or approach to succeeding at something they head back to home base – the comfort zone.
Reality 5: Fear of failure often leads to unconscious self-sabotaging. Like the college student who decides to stay out drinking until 2 a.m. before the final exam in a class he is practically failing. Or the young golfer who keeps missing the important puts and then tells her parents she hates golf. These kinds of behaviors can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies and increase potential for future failure.
Reality 6: The pressure to succeed increases performance anxiety causing “choking.” Choking at those critical gaming-winning moments. Blanking out before your big speech, sales pitch or job interview. The professional football kicker who misses a game-defining chip shot. The formally trained singer who misses the power note during her debut on national TV for The Voice. But choking is also avoidable because it usually is a result of overthinking.
Reality 7: Willpower is like a muscle – it needs both training and rest. Much like muscles that become fatigued, mental willpower can become overworked and undernourished. Soldiers participating in sustained combat experience battle fatigue which causes clouded thinking, lack of ability to control emotion, confusion, depression and inhibited decision-making ability. So, when you feel willpower fading, be sure to rest and be willing to revisit your motivations once you’ve nourished your willpower muscles.
Reality 8: The psychologically healthiest response to failure is focusing on what you can control. This ability is a fundamental tenet of building resilience and grit. Failure can result in us focusing primarily on the cause of our current adversity. We look backward instead of forward. We focus on the elements we have no control over as opposed to developing an action plan – leveraging what is in our control.
Seeking the magical opportunities beyond the comfort zone will be paved with small (and sometimes large) setbacks. But failure can be one of life’s greatest gifts. And who doesn’t like a good gift every now and then?