Resiliency: Mental Fortitude in Action

Dr. Michael O’Brien
Mistakes may be inevitable, but they don’t reflect on our ability to bounce back.

Mistakes may be inevitable, but they don’t reflect on our ability to bounce back.

Mistakes are inevitable.

You’ve heard it before, but that doesn’t take the sting out of failure when it happens. Mistakes can trap us in a vicious cycle of our own narrative. Failure leads to disappointment, and disappointment gives way to self-doubt — one of the most powerfully paralyzing forces a leader can face.

Mistakes are inevitable.

So are hurricanes, headaches, and hunger pangs. But after a midday migraine, we don’t find ourselves doubting our ability to live pain-free. So what’s the difference? No one thinks that they’ll never have a headache. That they’ll never become hungry.

Mistakes are inevitable.

We can define mistakes as no more than unanticipated or unwanted results. But far too often we conflate our emotional response to failure with our own personal identity. Mistakes don’t mean that you’re not capable, or that you can’t succeed in your environment any more than feeling hungry means you’re incapable of eating.

Mistakes are inevitable, but they don’t reflect on our ability to bounce back.

“The most resilient people give themselves mental latitude, space to see their setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow,” writes Jena Pincott in Psychology Today. “They believe failure is an event, not an identity. Resilient people do not define themselves by their adversity. They understand that bad times are temporary affairs.”

That mindset, which Pincott aptly describes as mental fortitude, requires us to let go of the tempting narrative threatening to build around every mistake. To use Pincott’s example, to go all in for a job interview just to find out you weren’t selected does not mean you’re an undesirable candidate, just that someone else was a better match for the role.

But actually separating ourselves from our natural, egocentric bias, which says everything’s about us, is easier said than done. Luckily, says Pincott, “mental fortitude can be cultivated.”

The language of resiliency

Mistakes exact an emotional pull on us the way the sun tugs a comet off its course. It’s deep-rooted and natural — God help us all who were ever rapped on the knuckles for improperly conjugating a verb or hitting the wrong notes on the piano.

So distancing yourself from the emotional pull of a mistake takes practice. The best approach? Try processing your feelings from an outsider’s point of view, says Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion & Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan.

By using language that frames our mistakes as someone else’s, we actually create pathways in our brain that allow us to analyze the situation on a more even keel. So shifting from the first person (“I can’t believe I lost that deal”) to the second or third person (“You fell just short on a competitive deal, Anna”) actively engages the parts of our brain responsible for rational judgement, rather than emotional response.

a quick exercise

Every two weeks, review the mistakes or breakdowns that threw you off track (keeping a leadership journal helps with this). Use the second person to review these instances with yourself without the pressure of your egocentric bias, and answer as if you were coaching a friend.

Ask yourself: “What was under your control? What impact will this event have on your career a month from now? What about in a year? What steps could you have taken that would have influenced the outcome?”

The first time you try to answer these questions, you might find it difficult to embrace the perspective shift and actually answer as if you were giving advice to a friend. That’s okay. Make this exercise part of your routine (go ahead and put a reminder on your calendar for every two weeks) and you’ll start to notice that it gets easier.

Eventually, you’ll catch yourself doing it in the moment, starting a dialogue with your third-person “self” after every mistake and offering immediate, judgement-free feedback. It will no longer feel like work to turn failures into action plans, to turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.

When that happens, you can be okay with the inevitability of mistakes.