How Do You Explain Your Failures?


Wanting to do something and knowing how to do something is not enough. To do anything — particularly those difficult things that require you to learn (or unlearn) something — you have to persist in the face of difficulties and set-backs. How you explain those challenges to yourself — the attribution you give them — largely predicts your ability to persevere.

In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman writes:

“I believe that traditional wisdom is incomplete. A composer can have all the talent of Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialize. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”

So what is this “optimistic explanatory style?” It’s the tendency to look at negative outcomes and attribute those to external factors (i.e. “it’s not my fault that didn’t work out“) that are highly specific (i.e. “it didn’t work out because of x”) and unstable (i.e. “x doesn’t always happen… hey. x rarely happens… yeah, and if I just adjust slightly… yup… just like that…okay, now i’ll give it another go…”).

Psychologists have created different dimensions to this topic of attribution. You may follow different attributional patterns when looking at positive vs. negative outcomes, or past vs. future events, yourself vs. all the various ‘others’ out there. In fact, it’s almost universal that people attribute differently for themselves versus others… it’s a matter of human nature… and also because we usually (think we) know our own intentions, whereas we have to infer the intentions of others. Attribution is a huge part of social interaction.

Of course, attributional effects aren’t everything. For example, I can improve my perseverance in the face of difficulties by shifting my focus either towards certain things or away from other things. Such coping mechanisms can be a great way to minimize stress and improve focus in the face of distractions or adversity. That said, all the focus in the world won’t help you if you’ve got a pessimistic attributional style. A pessimistic attributional style explains away all your successes as mere fleeting chance… and it insists that all your failures are intrinsic to yourself and happen always, under all circumstances. Such an approach will get you really focused… focused, that is, on feeling helpless and depressed.

Cultivating a healthier explanatory style is the key to a more positive and effective life. This is a complex area that takes work to develop, as it’s part of the intertwined machinery of attitudes and cognition…. a blend of perceptions, beliefs, emotions and values that propel us forward to (or pull us back from) taking action. I add in the words “values” there since some beliefs run deeper than others. For a more detailed parsing of this general category which is often put under the umbrella term of ‘attitude” or “will,” you can read about it under the Advanced Diagnostic Skill-Will Matrix post, or get some more ideas within the awesome & delicious A.V.O.C.A.D.O. Performance Model.

There’s a huge counter-point to all this talk about healthy, externally-focused attributional styles… and I can almost hear it coming from the peanut gallery… it has to do with accepting personal responsibility and accepting the need to change the course of action…. so…

Here’s the coaching question you can ask yourself (or others, if applicable), when looking at a particular event, whether it is positive or negative: How exactly did you contribute to the situation / outcome?

For those who don’t do enough self-examination and take little or no personal responsibility for failures, it’s an important question to ask… with emphasis on the “you.”

For those who love beating up on themselves in the face of failures, it’s an important question to ask too… but with emphasis on the “how exactly.”

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on July 6, 2011, in Learning, Life, Positivity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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