Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Learned optimism, because failure is a choice

The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the continuation of Layoffs, sheep, shepherds, and wolves, I wanted to write about overcoming failure and fear.

Recently I was faced with the decision to move to an easier assignment, with fewer external dependencies, no team to lead, a more forgiving range of time zones, and in a new technology field where I would have more freedom of action.

Against initial instinct, I chose to renew my commitment to a project anyone would consider far more challenging. I refused to leave it before I got all my lessons right, knowing the opportunity would most likely never materialize again.

This entry is largely reflective, but if your time is right, read on…

Optimism is a skill, not a trait

Most people are born with a fantastic gift: the gift of being able to explore and grow their potential until they decide to quit. Left unchecked, the human spirit is boundless. Yet, many people wake up one day convinced they have gone as far as they could, accepting a life of fear from losing what little they cherish.

We are born without fear, without failure, and at the same time, vulnerable to both. This fragility is one of our greatest strengths: the ability to learn from our failures and try again another day with our new experiences. Fear is the anticipation of repeat failure, and ultimately the choice to renounce our innate abilities to adapt.

As people go through the cycle of trying, failing, learning, and trying again, they develop a sense of what I call “learned optimism”. Learned optimism is a state of mind where you don’t just intuitively believe things will be all right, it is when you consciously *know* they will be all right because you know you were born with the tools to try until you succeed.

Some people are born optimistic, some are born brave, but learned optimism always carries the day. Learned optimism is a skill rooted in reason and practice, it gives you the certainty you cannot fail until you allow yourself to fail.

Wandering through life and the two questions

Encouraging a friend through a rough patch is an act of kindness, but encouragement alone cannot make up for a life lived as a succession of moments. As a true friend, I prefer to always ask:

Do you really want to do this?”.

If the answer is “yes”, then your friend is in the more serious ground of commitment to choice, by which time you can offer the second question:

Is it important enough that you will keep trying and improving at it until you succeed?”

You would be surprised at how few of our goals can be answered with the double “yes” to these questions. Some people find their true goals early in life; some stumble for longer; most never find what they never bothered to look for, living what Thoreau described as a life of quiet desperation.

Before we get into the long road of finding our life goals, the smaller tasks and projects at hand are good practice and should always pass the test of these two questions.

Deadlines are tools, not constraints

The certainty of success is premised on abundant time for repeat attempts at trial and error. Human lifespan is generally long enough to develop learned optimism, projects in our career are generally not.

Whereas we can try and complete a project within a deadline, fail, improve our planning skills, and try again, we must keep in mind the larger point of whether meeting deadlines is merely a skill – albeit a useful one - or a goal in life.

Skill or goal, practicing delivery within a deadline is a great exercise. There are few things that can accelerate the development of learned optimism as much as the whirlwind of impending deadlines and the knowledge that our effort will be either used by a paying customer or abandoned by the wayside for lack of interest.

I also have to keep reminding myself to practice keeping my serenity over time, though it may take a few iterations to deliver a task on time and with poise. Although careers and companies are man-made and alien to our nature, I would never dismiss them as learning tools: causality and time are also part of the universe for a reason, one that transcends the theme of this posting.

The road to certainty

For younger generations, my first advice is to become extremely good at something and watch your reactions to the learning process.

No matter how small a goal, developing certainty has a transformational effect that can affect other aspects of our lives. Once you excel at something and develop a sense of assured success, you can excel at anything you choose to.

The second unsolicited bit of advice is that until you find your goals, stay close to people who have found theirs.

People who have found their true goals are committed to their choices, knowledgeable, and invariably passionate. At some point in their lives, they chose to make the right choices, they chose to not give in to failure, they chose to learn from it and to keep on trying.

Learning and practice need good mentors and you cannot ask for better role models.