The exam season is all but over; A levels, GCSEs and most university exams are completed. Students are taking picnics to the park, planning summers away and enjoying the lull before results are published. For many young people this may be the first time they encounter rejection or failure determined by an outside organisation. Putting yourself forward for external scrutiny can be tough. Anyone who has applied for a job and been rejected knows the disappointment and reflection that follows, especially if it was a position where you considered yourself the perfect candidate.
Some people seem to be able to put failures behind them, learning from the experience, rapidly being able to move on. There’s no doubt that confronting failures, evaluating what could have been done better so that lessons are learned for the future helps. The good news is that we can learn to fail and to take risks from the behaviours of others around us. The attitudes of those around you, the values and ethos of your place of work or study are, in my opinion, enormously influential on your ability to manage failure.
In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed cleverly sums up the lessons businesses and individuals need to learn from mistakes in order to succeed. If you work in a place where failure is unacceptable, not discussed, or at worst hidden, it will obviously affect your attitude to mistakes. Conversely, if you work in an open environment where failing is a defined part of the learning and development process you will gain courage and take risks for the benefit of the team. Scientists and engineers approach knowledge on the basis that significant gains are only made by trying, failing and trying again. Failures are viewed simply as points of information that can help lead to the right answer.
How you manage rejection and failure can determine your future success. This is the reason that job interviews so often include questions about managing difficult situations and failures. It is simply to identify those who are comfortable taking risks but can cope and take appropriate action when things go wrong.
There's sound reason why we talk colloquially about the pain of rejection. Humans are evolutionarily wired to connect with others and crave inclusion. This was originally linked with our survival; in prehistoric times if someone became isolated or was rejected from the group, then their life would be at risk. Our brains and behaviour have adapted to avoid disapproval from others. Research has shown that social rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain, which helps explains why disapproval stings. Put a person in an MRI machine and ask them to recall a recent rejection and you will see the same areas of the brain being activated as when physical pain is experienced.
While some analysis is necessary and desirable following rejection or failure it’s better to avoid lengthy periods of self-deprecation that may dent self-esteem. An honest appraisal of what went wrong is essential in order to prepare for similar situations or to build a strategy or the future. And a logical examination of the context helps. We all know that the selection process for jobs often comes with a set of requirements and circumstances that we have no control over.
We can build confidence by focusing on the positives, what we offer as an employee for example, reaffirming the qualities we have that are valuable. Knowing how to limit the psychological damage of adversity like rejection will help to build resilience and manage attitude to future risk-taking.
These ideas are not new. In his book The Obstacle is the Way Ryan Holiday discusses concepts that great leaders have always known, from the Emperors of Rome onwards, that “setbacks and problems are always expected and never permanent.” Holiday uses the concepts of stoicism to teach us how to deal with life’s adversities and to turn negatives into positives.