What to do about failure and how to build resilience: Steve Jobs’ commencement address, Stanford 2005:

Clawing your way back from adversity

Failure is an F word.  In Singapore, Mr Kiasu – Mr “Afraid to Fail” is a Singapore icon.

Strangely, everytime I want to try something different, and I’m a pretty risk adverse person, my well meaning friends, who have themselves “marched to the tune of a different drumbeat” from their peers would caution why its not a good idea.

Tina Seelig, who teaches course of innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford University describes failure as the “secret sauce of Silicon Valley”

Fear of failure

1. Take responsibility for your actions and be willing to learn from what happened

Seelig requires her students to write a failure resume. Instead of writing about their achievements, students are to summarize their biggest screw-ups – personal, professional and academic.  For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from the experience.

Seelig writes of the look of surprise on the students’ face when she told them of the assignment, but they quickly realised that viewing their experiences from the lenses of failure helped them realise and learn from the mistakes they’ve made along the way.

Someone once shared with me about a sigmoid curve, Being on a down cycle, its hard to see that the temporary dip is actually a setup for the next rise. In fact, the slope of the upward line is often steeper than a down cycle, meaning you’re really achieving more than if you had stayed on a steady predictable path. -Tina Seelig, “What I wish I knew when I was 20.”

How to build resilience in times of Adversity and Failure

Excerpt of Steve Jobs’ Speech:

We had just released our finest creation – the Macintosh – a year earlier, and I had just turned thirty.  And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started?  Well, as Apple grew, we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well.  But then our visions of the future begun to diverge and eventually we had a falling out.  When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him.  So at thirty, I was out. And very publicly out.  What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didnt know what to do for a few months. … I was a very public failure and I even thought about running away from the Valley.  But something slowly began to dawn on me – I still loved what I did.  The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit.  I had been rejected, but I was still in love.  And so I decided to start over.

2. Be willing to start over again and persevere

I didnt see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.  The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.  It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who became my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world.  In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.  Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.

3. Don’t quit too early

Conventional wisdom gives the impression that talent is blindingly obvious.  Many companies try to spot talent and potential at a very young age.  In the classic 3M “Post-it” notes story, with an adhesive that wouldnt stick but later turned into a million dollar business and an integral part of our daily lives.

Never, never, never give up.  – Winston Churchill

It was invented in 1986 and promoted internally at 3M but no one was interested.  8 years later in 1974, a colleague Art Fry realised that he could use the adhesive to stick notes on his hymnal and spent his free time developing the product into the 3M Post-it notes we see today, and it wasnt until six years later that 3M launched the product.

Even if it seems you’ve failed, know when to quit and when not to quit too early.

4.  Learn to tell the story from a different perspective

Despite the Enron, sub-prime crises, it has not been easy convincing my Financial Services class on the importance of ethics.  A friend advised me that instead of telling them about what is right or wrong, ask them to consider the newspaper test.  What if your mom were to read about what you did  in the daily newspaper.  In a similar approach, we can learn from this newspaper approach in dealing with failure.

How would you craft your failure story now, so you’ll be proud to tell it later?

During a job interview, when you have to describe how you dealt with [conflict, adversity, difficult people, ambiguous situation ___________]?

5.  Your brain is plastic: learn new adaptive habits and skills

Failure signals a pause to allow us to reflect whether the crisis was caused by destructive thoughts and actions and bad habits.

Neuroplasticity pioneer researcher Jeffrey Schwartz and psychologist Rebecca  Gladding in their book ” You are Not your Brain” studying the structure and neuronal firing patterns of the human brain discovered that the brain can fire deceptive, urges, desires, impulses independent of your mind.  Your brain and mind are separate.

Bad habits, social anxieties, self-deprecating thoughts, and compulsive overindulgence are all rooted in overactive brain circuits and deceptive, negative brain messages.  While you are not responsible for the brain’s detrimental action but you are responsible for your choice on actions.

a) Relabeling (noticing thoughts),

The sensations your brain feels, is not the real you.  Every time you encounter an uncomfortable situation, your “Habit centre” kicks in, giving you temporary relief “momentarily – indulging in cravings, addictions etc”.  However this will not let the negative thoughts go away.

b) Reframing (naming the brain’s deceptive thought pattern to change your relationship to the thought),

“Its not me, its just my brain”.

Knowing that the urge to get that “right feeling” is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, you can learn to ignore the urge and move on. By refusing to listen to the urge or to act on it, you will actually change your brain and make the feeling lessen. If you take the urge at face value and act on it, you may get momentary relief but within a very short time the urge will just get more intense.

c) Refocusing (placing awareness elsewhere), and

Shift gears. Choose some specific behavior to replace compulsive washing or checking. Any constructive, pleasant behavior will do. Hobbies are particularly good. For example, you may decide to take a walk, exercise, listen to music, read, play a computer game, knit, or shoot a basketball.

After a class, I have caught myself, evaluating my class and an overactive inner critic, telling me what a horrible class it had been, and a few students who were terribly bored (ignoring the majority of the class who had rated the class very beneficial.

  • What I had found helpful was to go to the gym for 20 mins or bake a cake.  The focus and mindfulness required in the new activity provides relief from the over-active unhelpful brain messages.
  • Read my gratitude journal, where I had earlier recorded all the little things I am grateful for. [At this stage, your brain is likely to filter out the happy successful events, and focus only on the negative. ]

d) Revaluing (aligning with one’s deeper values, or true self).

Clearly see those thoughts as something to be dismissed, and not to take it at face value. You are not your thoughts.  Remind yourself what is the new reality and the goals you want to attain.  See yourself as how your loving and nurturing inner guide, the Wise Advocate sees you, and the values and goals of the true Self.

Check out: Summary of 4 steps

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