Resiliency: How to Accept Failure as a Gift of Strength
You flunk a math test. Your fiancé dumps you right before the wedding. You get rejected from the private school or college that is your first choice. You run for political office and lose. The one job you thought you nailed, you didn’t get after multiple interviewers said you were great. Even worse, “You’re fired!” a catchphrase attributed to a former President.
Do you take to your bed? Sit in a corner and feel sorry for yourself. Become stuck. Give up. Mope for days, or cry, vent, maybe talk it out with family and/or friends and then figure out how to mitigate the adversity or slight and move forward for as the atavistic axiom dictates, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” (Fredrich Nietzsche)
When there was a bump in the road in anyone’s life, Margaret’s mother always said, “Everything happens for a reason.” Barbara’s father had similar advice. “Somethings take multiple tries.” Both expressions ring true especially after reading a recent New York Times article, “In a Galaxy Far Away, He was almost Anakin Skywalker,” by Ben Proudfoot (Sept. 29, 2021). Devon Michael, at age 9, auditioned for “The Phantom Menace” — then the next installment of the “Star Wars” franchise.
Michael had done small acting roles and understood that winning this audition could mean a way out of poverty for his family. The role went instead to Jake Lloyd, who “experienced a level of criticism and bullying that would be alarming for even an adult actor,” Proudfoot writes. It had lasting effects for Lloyd later was diagnosed with a mental illness and spent time in prison. He is now living in a psychiatric institution. In the moment, losing the audition for Devon Michael was devastating. However, he has gone on to lead a productive life as a writer and actor.
As parents and grandparents, we are conflicted about watching our kids fail. It breaks our hearts. When our kids were little, it was the accepted practice to give everyone a trophy or ribbon on every sports team just for participating. No one should lose or be left out. But what’s the lesson here? No child should be disappointed or fail. Everyone always wins.
Is this good policy? Not always. We have learned in our older age that having small failures early in life, when a child has the safety net of his family to turn to, prepares us later as adults to deal with the big setbacks such as job loss or not being able to find one, dealing with bad health or a major loss in love. Failure begats strength and early failure makes later failure easier to digest. We slowly become resilient, not always on the first try.
Case in point is the loss of our spouses. Margaret’s husband died and left her wondering, “What am I supposed to do now?” Her life was upended. Barbara’s husband dumped her after three decades. Did we sit and stew? Barbara, as we say in our books, Suddenly Single after 50 and Not Dead Yet, ruminated, felt sad and then began to figure out how to recraft her life months after her husband announced he was leaving. She sought guidance from friends who had been divorced and from a professional counselor. The road was bumpy and there were lots of stops and starts and backward steps related to dating and where to live. She learned she was on the mend when she no longer needed to talk about the divorce—or only occasionally, a lesson she learned from the late writer Nora Ephron, who used that as her benchmark for being healed.
It took Margaret two years to accept the realization that her life would never be the same. So, she took charge to change it. Because all our parents allowed us to fail early on, we had built our suits of armor. We learned that loss or disappointment didn’t ruin us; didn’t destroy us. But it did change us and challenge us to find solutions.
How do we build resilience? Let us count 12 ways.
- Turn to your inner circle of friends and family who are willing to be a support system and listen rather than hurl suggestions or even criticisms at you such as, “You should have done this or that” when it was too late. Don’t take even good ideas automatically. Ruminate about them or try some and then you decide the best course of action.
- Focus on assets and accomplishments rather than deficits. Be kind to yourself. Maybe, your best account went to a competitor but think about all the business you’ve done with other clients. Now you have time to focus more on them or find new ones. Keep plugging away. Margaret’s relative couldn’t find a job after 1½ years of trying in her field. After dozens of rejections or not hearing back from those she contacted, she persisted and was able to land her dream job.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Not invited to a party, so what. Let it go and do something positive. Make sure you have better things to do and go do them with people who really cherish you. Learn some new technology, a musical instrument or how to play bridge or make ceramics. Shift your mindset; be thankful for what you have.
- Tap into your spirituality. This is not religion but it’s about treating others the way you’d like to be treated. Show kindness to others. Do a volunteer project. It will make you feel good in the moment if you’re hurting. Also, you never know where a volunteer job might take you or whom you’ll meet along the way. And that’s a positive step toward resilience.
- Get happy in nature. Notice the world around you more. Walk, enjoy people watching the scenery all around. This can be healing. Try to spend a little time outdoors each day; nature has been proven to help us both emotionally and physically.
- Do something spontaneous; something that isn’t planned. Goof off by going to a movie during the day or meeting a friend for coffee and having a good schmooze. You’ll feel like you’re playing hooky. It’s freeing. You’ll come back perhaps more relaxed with a clear head. And if you debate because you think you have too much work or are exhausted, try to break that cycle of always doing what’s expected and do something different for once. Be daring. And then maybe you’ll do it again.
- Budget so you don’t get strapped for money and panic. However, if you do find you’re short one month, figure out how to make it up. Walk dogs, babysit, work in a retail store a few evenings a week, maybe waitress or hostess, sell some possessions you never use to a consignment shop or an online resource. There are lots of jobs available now, too.
- If you’re down in the dumps after a setback, start a new healthy routine. Stretch in the morning, floss, walk to coffee shop rather than drive, try a new exercise regimen, practice mindfulness or learn yoga. Make a small purchase, perhaps, that new lipstick color for winter.
- Declutter. If you lost your job, this is a great time to clean out your stuff while waiting to hear if you get that new job. Purging your life of stuff and messes makes you feel more organized and in control. It can be a small task rather than a big attic or basement. Example: Cleaning out your pantry in the kitchen of stuff with expiration dates is a great start.
- If you’re sinking down a rabbit hole and feel paralyzed, really sad and in the dumps, time to call up the cavalry, perhaps, a mental health professional. It takes strength, not weakness, to do so, share your sadness out loud with someone else. But together you can strategize and see things more clearly. If you don’t like the first or even second professional, you meet with—no chemistry perhaps--go for a third. It takes time to build this type of relationship.
- Find a purpose. This includes helping others. Generosity makes you feel good and it doesn't have to cost anything at all. Studies have shown that it's more beneficial to give than to receive. We just read about the man who gave CPR to a complete stranger who went into cardiac arrest on a sidewalk in New York City. He saved the person's life, according to hospital reports.
- Look for role models. There are so many examples of people who overcame all sorts of different odds. But with resilience, they have moved forward. Think of Nelson Mandela, Viola Davis, Naomi Oasaka, battered women, other prisoners—some wrongly accused, hundreds of kids in foster care, and so on.
Disappointment and difficult times are a fact of life, some small and some huge. Think someone’s life is perfect? You have no idea often what they’re going through.
The light at the end of what may seem like a dark tunnel in the moment may be a small, hot, glowing blub of resiliency that slowly helps find a way out and sometimes not all at once. However, once you learn to be resilient, you’re in better shape for the next hurdle or challenge, and then the next. Being alive means facing what’s thrown our way head on and moving beyond.