How to Tackle Whatever Life Throws at You and Win
On April 3, I have a new book coming out. It’s 250 pages of business non-fiction for a niche audience of young lawyers, and I’ve spent the better part of the last year laboring over it; extensive research involving interviews with dozens of experts, hundreds of hours spent writing and editing, and creating a strategy to market the book. It’s about to go to print, and it will take flight in a few weeks. It’s exciting. It’s also terrifying.
What if it isn’t well received? What happens if no one buys it? Did I miss any typos? What if it doesn’t take flight, but rather goes over like a lead balloon?
I’m trying to have the right perspective about things. Unlike past experiences when I launched something new, I’m trying to enjoy the moment and celebrate small wins along the way. At the same time, I’m trying to anticipate that the expectations I have for the book won’t be matched by the reality. There’s a concept in social science called “optimism bias” that attempts to explain why we have a tendency to be overly optimistic about outcomes despite prior experience that counsels otherwise.
More than anything, I’m trying to keep in mind that whatever happens, everything is going to be alright. The good things almost certainly won’t be as good as what I’m anticipating, and the bad things won’t be as bad as I fear. I know from experience that I’ll be grateful for the things that will inevitably go wrong because I’ll learn from the experience and do it better the next time.
This gets to the heart of what it takes to tackle new challenges and embrace new experiences. If we can appreciate and understand that we tend to look back with hindsight and realize that we’re capable of enduring almost any challenges, then we can get past the fear and anxiety we feel when we look ahead to something new.
The prospect of failure seems terrifying in foresight, but we come to see failure as a valuable learning experience in hindsight. What if we can flip our perspective, and instead of perceiving fear as an obstacle, view it as a beacon to follow? New worlds of opportunity will open up as a result.
Learning from Failure Requires a Growth Mindset
One of America’s most famous innovators was a failure. Thomas Edison failed all of the time—or at least that’s how it appeared to the outside world. It’s said that Edison created nearly 10,000 unsuccessful prototypes before finally refining a commercially viable lightbulb. Of this work, Edison said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
Life is nothing but a series of moments, and each one requires us to make a decision that affects the outcome. Sometimes we make an affirmative decision to act. Other times we do nothing—which is still a decision. Either way, we’re forced to live with the circumstances.
Successful people tend to be biased toward action. They prefer to be masters of their domains who live life on their terms. They go through life with a “growth mindset” and not a “fixed mindset.”
The distinction between a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset comes from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who synthesized her research in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In Mindset, Dweck dives deeply into the power of our beliefs, and explains that how we think about the possibility of change can have a big impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.
Dweck defines a person with a “fixed mindset” as one who believes that their character, intelligence, and creative ability are static and immutable, and that they have little control over outcomes in their life as a result.
A person with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, is motivated by challenges and sees failure as an opportunity. They believe they can get better through the experience of trial and error (especially error).
Thomas Edison had a growth mindset. Author Seth Godin has one, too. He’s a master at failure because he’s done it so many times. “I think it’s fair to say that I have failed more than most people,” Godin said. “And I’m super proud of that. Part of the rules of this game is, the person who fails the most wins.”
Instead of being discouraged by failure, Edison, Godin, and other growth-minded people sharpen their ability to learn from it. To grow is to fail and to fail is to grow. You can’t have one without the other. As Oprah once said, “Failure is another stepping stone to success.”
This is not to say that people should aspire to failure, but it’s inevitable if you’re growing, stretching, and expanding your capabilities. There is no way around it. You need to have the right perspective and be resilient in the wake of failure, rather than being paralyzed when it happens or allowing it to stop you from acting in the first place.
The Most Important Attribute of a Growth-Minded Person is Resilience
Entrepreneur Sara Blakely exhibits tremendous resilience. She’s the founder of billion-dollar brand Spanx. She knew nothing about the women’s fashion and accessories market when she got started.
At the time she developed her signature women’s undergarment product, she had been selling fax machines door-to-door for seven years. Selling fax machines to small businesses was, as you might expect, an undertaking that involved long bouts of failure interspersed with fleeting moments of success. Lots of resilience was required.
To get started in her new endeavor, she developed a rough prototype by cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose, but she needed to find a manufacturer who could help her produce a polished product. She did an Internet search for hosiery mills in North Carolina and started cold-calling with no success.
Eventually she took a week off from her fax machine sales job and drove from mill to mill in North Carolina, figuring that she would have more luck if she could get her product idea in front of the right person at a manufacturer. Again, no luck. It was only after one of the mill owners, who turned Blakely down after meeting her in person, discussed the idea with his teenage daughters—who immediately recognized its brilliance—that she found someone willing to help.
When it came time to sell her new undergarment, she once again fell back on what she knew, and picked up the phone and cold-called a buyer from Neiman Marcus. It took her a week to get through, but when Blakely got the buyer on the phone she talked her way into a ten minute product pitch in Dallas. Her dogged persistence paid off as Neiman Marcus agreed to sell Spanx in seven stores. This was Blakely’s first sale, and her billion-dollar juggernaut was born.
Blakely is the epitome of resilience. She experienced lots of setback and ran up against brick walls, but found ways over, around, and through them. Blakely attributes her resilience to her father, who sat her down at the dining room table every week and asked her the following question: “What did you fail at this week?” He didn’t focus on her successes. Rather, he celebrated her failures. He wanted to know that she was trying new things, stretching her capabilities, and not stuck in her comfort zone.
It’s Going to be Okay
Whatever happens when my book comes out, it will be okay. I’ve done this before and I’m still standing. I won’t get too high or too low along the way. I know that I will make mistakes, and they’ll bother me in the moment, but I’ll learn from them over the long-term.
The important thing to remember is that growth-mindedness and resilience are not innate traits. No one is born this way. As psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.”
Our aptitude for growth and resilience grows the more we expose ourselves to stimulus outside of our comfort zones. Muscles grow only after they’re broken down. Our minds work that way, too. Some people, like Sara Blakely, take steps to become more resilient from an early age. But there’s nothing stopping you from training these attributes at any stage of life other than your own limiting beliefs about what’s possible.