Emotional Health

A Single Key to Achieving Your Goals? Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

As we continue with our resolution to re-examine New Year’s resolutions, an important question is how one sticks with it and achieves a goal. Dr. Pat wrote on Monday about her 2016 goal to “right size” her life and her successful accomplishment of this aim, finding a new home that was more suited to her family’s current needs. Taking us through the numerous steps she took to get there, she demonstrated that it can take a long time to get where you want to be. Dr. Pat also reminded us of how few people are able to stick to their resolutions (8 percent) or make their changes permanent.

What is the difference between success and failure? Why do some people find themselves in the same place year after year while others make significant changes that last?

If there is one essential ingredient that separates winners from losers it is their ability to risk failure. Most people who successfully achieve their goals have tried and failed at previous attempts. Studies show that those who quit smoking have usually tried and failed numerous times. But some goals, like not smoking, are important enough that most people usually keep trying to reach them.

The key is to stay with it until you find the right combination of method and motivation. A smoker who has failed using will power might have greater success using nicotine patches and/or gum. Or she may be more able to let go of this deadly addiction when she marries and plans a family who depends on her health and well-being.

More complex goals, like finding the right living situation, as Dr. Pat did, may also take a few tries before getting it right. Though moving is an expensive and difficult procedure, you can’t easily know right away what place will suit you. That’s why her method of renting first to see if the area was right was a brilliant idea — even if it didn’t work out exactly as she planned.

If failure is such a key ingredient to success, then why are some of us “failed failers” while others are “successful failers”? The New York Times writes:

“In interviews we did with high achievers … we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role. The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.”

Those people who say that bad luck, sabotage, or timing is preventing their success are essentially giving up because they are endorsing the idea that they have no control over the situation. High achievers, on the other hand, look at what they themselves did that could be improved on in a future attempt. In what way can they act differently to achieve a different result? Or, as noted above, they learn from past failures the way in which their goals need to be tweaked or modified. They take responsibility, look at themselves honestly, and find ways to seize control of the situation.

If, in contrast, you feel the world is against you, what can you do? Not only does such thinking prevent you from coming up with solutions, it can lead to feelings of helplessness, proven to be correlated to depression. Even when fate is “on your side” it can be better to feel you are in control. Children who were told they did well on a test because they tried hard did better on subsequent tests than children who were told they did well because they are “smart.” Effort is something we can control, but most of us think of intelligence as a genetic blessing (though there is some dispute about that as well).

We all have known people who seem to constantly repeat the same mistakes. Sometimes you see this when a friend dates or even marries the same kind of wrong man over and over. Many of us would be inclined to do this since the factors that draw us to people are often unconscious and mysterious, but we can learn from mistakes and consciously seek to avoid them. Some people even seek therapy after a bad relationship to increase their understanding of what went wrong, how they contributed to it, and how they can avoid it in the future.

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