Learn from success as well as failure

It is widely recognised that there is much learning to be gained from reviewing our mistakes, looking at what went wrong and how and why it did. However, what is often given far less attention than it deserves is the immense learning to be gained from what goes right. If we are being successful in most of what we are doing, then we can learn a great deal from asking ourselves what it is that we are doing that is so effective. This can then give us the opportunity to look at how we do it even better, to build on our strong points, rather than just build up our not so strong points.

Mistakes are quite rightly seen as a good source of learning, but focusing too narrowly on the negatives of a situation or our response to it can put what went well out of focus, hidden in the shadows. For example, in a fraught situation involving conflict, the anxiety I feel in such tense circumstances may lead me to say something unwise and ill-considered that unwittingly inflames the conflict, thereby creating the possibility that the person I spoke to may become aggressive or even violent. Making sure that I do not make such unwise comments in future would be a good example of the important learning to be drawn out from getting things wrong. But it can also mask the fact that the person concerned did not become aggressive or violent because I was very skilful in handling the situation, very effective in defusing the additional tension that I unintentionally caused through my unwise comment. Feeling bad about getting something wrong can easily dominate our thoughts and thereby filter out what went well and how our own contributions to that figured so significantly.

This can often be linked to self-esteem too. Someone with low self-esteem is likely to be prone to focus on the negatives, on what they did not do as well as they could, while paying little or no attention to the positives of the situation and what was done well. Equally, some people with high self-esteem may be reluctant to focus on their mistakes, as that creates a conflict with the positive image they have of themselves. It need not be like this, of course – it is perfectly possible to have high self-esteem and still recognise that you are not perfect and will get things wrong from time to time. It is about balance, and at times our own self-esteem issues can knock that balance out of kilter.

This process of learning from what we do well is part of reflective practice, the ‘reflective conversation with the situation’ that Schön wrote about: asking ourselves what is happening, why it is happening and how we can steer things in a positive direction. Through reflective practice we can look at what works and learn about what other situations we might be able to apply that success to. For example, we may realise that what works well with adults won’t work with children or vice versa. But we may also learn that by adapting what works with one group, we can extend it to other groups. Success can then breed further success over time,

It is also important to recognise that sometimes things go well, despite our part in the situation, and so we might be wasting time and energy by focusing our efforts on things that will work out well anyway. Increased awareness of not only what works, but also why it works can therefore be very helpful, so that we can be clear about what our own contribution has been and how we can build on that in future.

Find a balance of challenges

A life without challenges may seem appealing when we are under pressure, but in reality it would be bland, boring, unstimulating and a recipe for a miserable life. However, going to the opposite extreme of having challenges that are too difficult or too numerous can be very problematic. It can be a recipe for stress and worse.

So, what we need to find is a balance of challenges, a level of challenge that does not leave us bored, but nor does it overwhelm us. This is not always easy, but it is certainly worth the effort to achieve that balance whenever we can.

It won’t be a one-off job whereby we achieve that balance and everything is fine thereafter. Life isn’t that simple, of course, as things will continue to change. That balance should therefore be seen as a dynamic one that needs to be managed over time, rather than a fixed point that we have reached.

So, what counts as a suitable balance of challenges will be different at different times. This will depend on a number of factors. For example, our health can make a big difference. What we can easily take in our stride when we are well can prove to be too much when we are under the weather. There will also be emotional factors to consider – for example, someone who is grieving may find even straightforward day-to-day challenges too demanding for a while at least. And, of course, there will be social factors to consider. Someone struggling with poverty may have far less room for manoeuvre for other challenges (although that is not to say that people living in poverty cannot cope with huge challenges, as that is often precisely what poverty brings).

We also have to take into account that what counts for a significant challenge for one person may be nothing of the sort for someone else. An example of this would be public speaking. People who are used to this may find it not the slightest bit challenging and may actually relish it, while people not so accustomed to it may find it one of the most challenging things they will ever do in their lives. Others will find it so demanding that they will never do it, refusing to even consider it as a possibility. Consequently, we have to think carefully about what each of us finds challenging (and how challenging exactly), as what applies to one person won’t necessarily apply to others.

We should also consider the positive side of challenges – they have payoffs as well as pains, benefits as well as costs. Rising to a challenge can boost confidence, earn respect and credibility and open doors for us. It can also give us a sense of satisfaction and real achievement – provided, of course that we are able to keep that balance: not too little, not too much.

A lot will depend on how much support we have access to. Do we face our challenges alone or together? This is also a factor that make a huge difference. Sadly, some people see accepting help or support as a sign of weakness and therefore struggle on alone unnecessarily, missing out on the major benefits of working together and supporting one another.

At the heart of balancing our challenges is self-awareness, being able to tune in to the circumstances we find ourselves in at any given time and weigh up what it is safe to take on and what will risk overloading us. To do that we need to be aware of what our capabilities are and very aware of what is involved in the challenges. We need to have clarity about where those boundaries lie: (i) between too little and just right; and (ii) between too much and just right. In effect, self-awareness should bring us a Goldilocks approach to balancing the challenges we face.

Beware of vicious circles

The term ‘vicious circle’ is one that is often used, but its significance is not always appreciated or fully understood. This is a pity, as it is an important and useful concept, and vicious circles are far more common than people generally realise.

So, what exactly is a vicious circle? Basically, it is when one thing (let’s call it A) has a negative effect on another (B), and then B has a similar negative effect on A, leading to an exacerbation of A and its negative effect on B. And so it goes on, from bad to worse, the negatives of A and B reinforcing each other. The technical way of putting this is that a ‘feedback loop’ has been set up. Some feedback loops are fairly minor and trivial and do relatively little harm. However, some can be very serious and highly destructive. For example, personal or professional relationships can break down, leading to a range of significant ‘knock-on’ problems. Imagine Sam gets annoyed with Chris, so becomes uncommunicative, rather than dealing with whatever the problem was. Chris is annoyed that Sam has become uncommunicative, and so becomes equally uncommunicative in return. This makes Sam even more annoyed, creates a tense and difficult atmosphere and makes life difficult all round. The result is the classic outcome of a vicious circle: the situation not only goes from bad to worse, but also becomes entrenched – with each round of response it becomes more difficult for either Sam or Chris to break out of the cycle. It can therefore continue for weeks, months or even years, doing more and more harm. Long after the original source of annoyance has been forgotten, the vicious circle is continuing to do a great deal of harm.

One of the harmful effects of a vicious circle is that it can affect not only the people directly involved, but also those around them. For example, if Sam and Chris were family members, their vicious circle could have a detrimental impact on all the other family members, and may even lead to family breakdown. If they were co-owners of a company or senior managers in any organization, the net result could be highly problematic for staff and indeed for the organization as a whole and all its stakeholders.

Being able to ‘tune in’ to vicious circles (preferably sooner, rather than later) is therefore a highly desirable attribute to have. So, there is much to be gained from thinking carefully about vicious circles and doing whatever we reasonably can to address them. For example, in situations where there is a conflict, working out whether one or more vicious circles are involved (and it is highly likely that there will be) can be a very useful way forward. This is a skill that can be developed over time, but it begins with making sure we are – and remain – aware of how vicious circles arise and operate.

What can be even better than resolving vicious circles is to find ways of turning them into ‘virtuous circles’. This is where A has a positive effect on B that in turn results in a B having a positive effect on A. instead of going from bad to worse, things go from strength to strength. Of course, creating a virtuous circle is not always possible and rarely easy. However, we should be careful not to rule out the possibility. It involves the same skills as addressing vicious circles, but taking them to a more advanced level – again something that can be achieved over time. The key, of course, is ‘tuning in’, being sensitive enough to work out what is happening, rather than just letting things pass you by.