Sunday, August 23, 2015

Setbacks and learning are two sides of the same coin


For as long as I can remember, I used to hate setbacks in life. It used to make me wonder as to why God can be so unkind to human beings who mean well and wish to improve their lives. I used to literally go through extreme feelings of 'why me?', or, 'what did I do to deserve this?' And I had the exact same emotions and thoughts when bad things happened to people near and dear to me. 

Never did I think that setbacks are actually life's best companion to improve life, if combined with learning. Read on.

Some of the biggest mistakes that we make, especially when we are younger, is to consider failure or setbacks as the end of life. There have been umpteen times when I have gone into extreme depression or done aimless soul-searching, without always finding an answer to the failure that I was facing. That was mistake number 1 i.e. thinking of the setback in isolation. 

The other big mistake that one tends to make, is this world of constant comparison. It is the single most self-destructing characteristic for anybody's human psyche. That was mistake number 2, which is one's greatest enemy. We just forget that the capabilities of human beings differ, so do resources, or more importantly, discipline.

There are other wrong ways in dealing with setbacks in life. One, to think that it is the end of the world. Two, to find it hard to see a way out. Three, to just completely fail to consider alternatives that may be feasible. Four, the sheer unwillingness to consult closest comrades who may play a key role in advising you. Five, the inability to learn from the situation. And all this eventually resulting in just getting stuck. It is not easy. I am the last person to suggest that getting out of a mess in life is easy. One is battling life's practicality, along with one's own psyche. It's hard, really hard.

Over time, I have come to realise that the fundamental thing in tackling any setback in anybody's life, is in approach. While I don't know everybody in this world, I can definitely speak for myself. The biggest change in my mindset came during the years 2004-2010 (and occasionally after that), when I had to emerge and evolve from a personal catastrophe in my life (those who know me closely enough, know what I am referring to). During that phase, I really did think that it was the end of the world and I failed to think of things to consider, evaluate and diagnose things my own good. Life did seem unfair at that time. Life most certainly did seem unforgiving too. The world looked like it was the worst place to be in.

The big thing that I eventually came out with is that setbacks, personal disasters and failures have to be treated with less emotion (you can't avoid it), and more objectivity. It is easier said than done. And it is extremely hard for anybody who tends to be hard on oneself, as I usually am with myself. But, the key is to learn and learn fast. Time and tide wait for noone, as the saying goes. That is even more relevant in the context of self-healing. And the one thing I have learnt over time is that setbacks without applying the learning element, is a sure way to continue being in distress and pain. 

If we learn quickly from our mistakes, find a way not to repeat them and stop feeling inadequate about ourselves, just because we did something wrong or something really 'not-so-great' happened to us, we can rebuild. The degree of the impact of a setback/failure certainly varies from person to person and it is something that we cannot control. But, what we do control, is our approach to a setback. The ability to apply learning to a setback is in our control. The ability to learn and evaluate why something went wrong and what one should do to not to repeat that mistake (especially, if its something that could have been avoided) are the key things. Its like batting in cricket - if you get out to wild shots outside the off stump, and practice to leave the ball from the next match, you will reduce your chances of getting out. I suppose, that may seem too simplistic an example, but, it really is applicable to most of our lives.

Look at the number of initiatives in the world that are available to us these days to tackle failures/setbacks in life. We have mentors in most multi-national companies these days. We have self-help portals. Business schools teach students about emotional quotient in the corporate world. Psychologists are in various interview panels while hiring senior level candidates, these days. The Australian army, for example, does not recruit people for key battles/positions, if the candidate has not faced a severe failure/setback in life. Their contention is, if the person has not faced failure, he will not know what to do when he sees missiles coming at him in the battlefield. In the modern age, there are NGOs that help people tackle depression. Self-help groups are on the increase, right around the world. The subject, moral science in school, sadly continues to be treated with contempt. Perhaps, that is the one class that should be made mandatory in school. 

All this, to me, just points to one thing. Failure/setbacks, considered in isolation without introspection/learning, are irrelevant and meaningless. And having so many avenues these days to tackle setbacks just means one thing. We need help. But, to help these various fora to help us, we can start within us by helping ourselves first. There is no point in self-pitying anymore. The world and nobody has time for that. 

All that I mention so far, is historical. If I have to extend the syndrome of tackling failures in life to future generations, here's my take.

The modern day teenagers dare to dream and dream big. They do not understand or know the meaning of failure. The fact that something is not possible, does not resonate with them. That is the mindset of the modern era i.e. these kids of the digital age who are ready to take the world on. Nothing wrong with that. It is credit to the generation that the world has managed to build over the last 25-30 years - of dreaming big and fufilling one's deepest desires. 

But, I am equally convinced, however, that it is this new generation that needs to be taught the ability to handle failure. I will never hope or want anybody from the generation-next to fail (or anybody for that matter). But, I really do think, that this generation-next is the most vulnerable. They need to be taught the mechanisms to handle failure. 

Be it now or the year 2050 or 2100, man will progress and create means to build a better world. Current and future generations will continue to 'innovate and invest' in their ideas to create a world far different (and hopefully better!) from what mankind has seen till date. But, the other 'i' is always not as directly visible as the first two 'i's I mentioned above. And that is, 'introspection'. 

I am not trying to paint a sad picture of the future world, but only trying to illustrate why introspection and learning from failures in the future will be even more critical than it has been in the past. The challenges of the future are likely to be the types that we may have not even thought possible. That makes it even more critical to do all three things at once - dream big and execute on those dreams, generate ideas for the betterment of the world rather than just compete, and introspect from failures.

Perhaps, Thomas Alva Edison said it best, years ago, "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have found 10,000 ways of not doing it and just need 1 way to make the electric bulb'. If that is not introspection/learning from failures, I don't know what else is. History is full of such great people with such great failures. But, it is what they did with those failures that made them great.

I am convinced, failures/setbacks and learning, are two sides of the same coin.

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