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What to Say to Yourself When You Fail

"Non-negative thinking sets the best apart from the rest."

If you're human, you will experience failure. Period.

Serena Williams experienced a huge failure in the Miami Open a couple months ago, an early exit in round 1.

Unheard of, right? Not really. She was a new mother, not back in her best shape, and it was her first tournament since the birth of her daughter.

We fail too. Maybe we lose a competition, a prospect says no, a presentation goes south, or we get rejected after a promising (so we thought) interview.

According to Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, founding father of the new science of positive psychology, there is a power in positive thinking, but it "pales in comparison," says Seligman "to the importance of what we think after we fail." Our “non-negative” thinking sets the best apart from the rest.

Serena, packed up after the Miami Open, understood that she did not in fact fail. She needed more time to prepare. She was optimistic about her ability to come back, and vowed to do what it takes to make progress.

It’s time to take to take inventory of what Seligman calls your “explanatory style,” how you explain defeat to yourself. Do you concede that you are "not good enough," "not capable" or "not deserving?" If so, you may have what Seligman calls a "pessimistic explanatory style" which is not going to serve your long-term success. If your explanatory style is more optimistic, you feel setbacks are temporary, and a way of learning how to get better, you should recover from setbacks quicker and make more progress over the long haul.

Here are a couple tips for what to say to yourself when you fail:

  1. "This was an isolated incident, and doesn’t mean I am not smart/capable/deserving/competent enough."

  2. "It’s ok if I’m upset/disappointed/frustrated for a short period of time, but I am committed to learning and improving." (i.e.: being resilient)

  3. "This setback has nothing to do with other aspects of my life. Just because I failed/had a setback with work has nothing to do with my ability to be a good partner, friend, colleague."

Bottom line: If you work on having an optimistic explanatory style, you will be more resilient, make more progress, and very likely, be happier. There are also other benefits according to Seligman, such as boosting your immune system as well.

Chin up. You got this! ... and I am here to support you every step along the way.

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Here's to you being amazing!

What is one past failure that you had a pessimistic explanatory style and how can you shift it to a positive explanatory style?

"Success consists of going from one failure without loss of enthusiasm."
- Winston Churchill -

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD.

Here’s to you being amazing! 

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Watch Sheryl's comments on what to say to yourself when you fail


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