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Perception Matters: We're Meant to Learn from Failure

Two years ago, almost to the month, I wrote to you about how perspective is everything, and how the way you interpret specific events in your life matters. These interpretations can mean the difference in improving confidence and motivation or, conversely, experiencing more frustration, worry and anxiety.  Today, we will continue that conversation, but this time, we are going to look more at how you perceive your performances.

Let's say that you have been preparing all week for a sales presentation. In it, you touched on every point you wanted to, asked all the right, thought-provoking questions, had extreme buy-in from the audience, and they laughed at all your jokes, but at the end, they tell you they are not interested. Would you view this “performance” as a success or a failure? How you think about your performances is just as important as what you are thinking before and during the performance. Since the meaning of a good or bad result is an ambiguous concept, your interpretation becomes that much more important and will have a drastic impact on how you perform in the future. 

Interpreting Successes and Failures 

Whether you are an athlete, corporate mogul or a student, you perform on a fairly consistent basis. No matter if it’s well or below standards, oftentimes, your thoughts from one performance carry over to the next. Therefore, how you interpret your performance can directly impact your next one.

 A commonality among elite performers is how they interpret their performances. They interpret their successes as authentic, pervasive and global. Authentic means that their performance was a true representation of the self. They performed how they prepared, they were automatic, and they were able to showcase their true abilities. Pervasive means that being successful was not a one-time thing, it is something that can last and that they can do over and over again. Lastly, global means that if they can be successful here, they can be successful in other areas.  

On the other side of the coin, elite performers interpret their failures as inauthentic, temporary and isolated. Inauthentic means that their performance was not a true representation of the self. They were not able to showcase their true abilities and who they truly are. Temporary refers to their failure being a one-time thing, it is something that won't last and won't happen again. Lastly, isolated means that this failure was a one-time thing and only affected this particular performance. 

Where individuals get into trouble is when they flip these perspectives. They interpret their successes as being inauthentic, temporary and isolated, and end up seeing their failures as authentic, pervasive and global. When this happens, you minimize your accomplishments, and your confidence takes a drastic dip heading into upcoming performances. Research shows that how you perceive events will directly impact how you cope with stress and how you perform; therefore, you should take a more optimistic approach to interpreting your performances.  You don't have control over performance results, but you do control how you interpret that experience.  If you can effectively analyze your performances in this manner, you can build confidence in any situation, no matter the outcome.

My Battles with Performance and Interpretation

Growing up, my interpretation of my performances was extremely ineffective. While playing varsity basketball my senior year, I felt I was underutilized. My playing time was minimal, even though I would work hard during practice and put in the extra work on my own time. I know my coach noticed because we were members of the same fitness facility.

However, the added practice did not account to more playing time, and each day, I asked myself, “what am I doing wrong?” I felt I was a failure, like I wasn't good enough, as if no matter how much work I put in, it would not amount to anything. This approach started to make its way into my academics. No matter how much I studied, no matter how much homework I did, my test grades were never that great. I started to lose motivation; then, I began to put less effort into my studies. 

During this time, even experiencing successes was not enough. There were times where I would get the chance to play, and I would do well, but I would interpret those performances as lucky.  Even though I was putting in the extra work to receive more playing time, once I did and did well, I minimized my achievements. The test scores I spoke of earlier, sometimes I would receive a B, but since my interpretation of how to view performances was flipped, I would attribute these to luck. To this day, I wonder what could have been if I had continued to put in the work both in athletics and academics.  Being a 6’0” meant Division 1 basketball was most likely out of the question, but my academic journey could have turned out differently. I take the outcome out of the equation now and focus on the effort I put in, so better late than never, but my professional career took a turn once I started to interpret my performances differently.  

Making the Change 

Changing your perspective on your performances will not be easy. You have conditioned yourself to respond a specific type of way, so the process involves unlearning what you know and re-learning what you don't know. The first step in producing change is by increasing your self-awareness of the self-talk that takes place. Think of a recent failure or setback that you experienced. Explain what happened, sticking to the facts only, and what thoughts were present during this moment. On the other side, think of a recent success that you experienced. Again, explaining what happened while sticking to the facts only, and then identifying what thoughts were present during this moment. 

Do you see a difference? Is your interpretation of one different than the other?  Through this activity, you might identify that you minimize your successes and say things like “right place, right time” or “I got lucky”. You also might identify that you internalize failures and setbacks. Viewing yourself as the cause and that this failure is “just who I am”.  Self-awareness is vital because it's hard to change what you do not know is there. 

The second step in producing change is by altering your self-talk during a post-performance reflection.  First of all, if you are not currently reflecting on your performances, then you should start today.  This reflection process includes identifying three sustains, areas you did well and want to continue doing, and three improves, places from your most recent performance you want to improve upon for next time. Your self-talk during this process is key. 

When you interpret your successes as inauthentic, temporary and isolated, a common phrase associated with this perspective is “because I got lucky”.  Instead, objectively identify something related to the success as a part of your sustains.  For example, instead of saying “the board accepted the sales pitch because I got lucky”, change it to “the board accepted the sales pitch because I prepped for three hours over the weekend”.  Instead of saying. “the shot went in because I got lucky”, change it to “the shot went in because I put in extra work in the gym this week”.


The same goes for how you interpret your failures.  When you view your failures as authentic, pervasive and global, a common phrase associated with this perspective is “I failed because I am a failure." Just because you fail, or make a mistake, does not mean that you are a failure. Did you fail? Yes, but that is a potential outcome with any performance.

Therefore, take the same approach and objectively identify something that may have led to the failure as a part of your improves. For example, instead of saying “I failed because I am a failure”, change it to “I failed because I could not prep over the weekend due to family circumstances”.  Instead of saying, “I missed the shot because I suck”, change it to “I missed the shot because my focus was in the wrong area”.  The key aspect of both of these situations is how you interpret what happened. Your explanation of what happened should be more objective than evaluative. 

Final Thoughts

Your thoughts matter; how you interpret your performances matter.  This interpretation can mean the difference between being confident in your next performance or shying away and underperforming. Not every performance is going to go as planned. You may do everything correct, everything that you had planned, and still obtain an undesirable result, these outcomes are out of your control, do not let them dictate how you interpret your performances. Do not let results minimize your work, effort and dedication that you put into your craft. Pay attention to your thoughts, adjust your interpretation of your performances, so that you can maintain and build confidence for future performances. 

By: Joey Velez MA, MBA


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