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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Motivate in the Face of Failure: Part 1

Do you enjoy failing?

Most people do not. Failure stimulates a roiling mess of unpleasant feelings. This would be a boiling concoction of anger, frustration and anxiety. These are all emotions that sap motivational energy. If you have been feeling angry, frustrated and anxious over a few months, you would feel depressed and burnt out.

Yet, there are some adults who are able to take failure in their stride. They come back stronger after each failure experience. They seem to be able to absorb motivational energy from failure, instead of letting failure sap their energy. These adults turn failure into clean motivational energy in the same way Singapore’s Newater plants turn sewage into clean water. Such people go through life like the mythical Hydra, a three-headed snake who was formidable because every time you chopped off one head, two would grow back in its stead. The more it failed, the stronger it became. I call this the Hydra mentality. We are not merely discussing resilience to failure.

We are discussing the capacity to turn failure into motivational drive. 

Given that our adult attitude to failure is largely defined by our childhood experiences with failure, what can parents do to inculcate the Hydra mentality?

Here are some strategies derived from published psychological research that can help change the debilitating stress of failure into a store of empowering resources. These are a series of easy to implement psychological processes that work to transform dirty stress into clean motivational energy. Dr Norman Parker and Dr James D.A. Parker developed a taxonomy of strategies people use to cope with stressful situations such as failure. There is task-oriented coping, emotion-oriented coping and avoidance- oriented coping.

Strategy 1: Task-Oriented coping
More often than not, when a parent receives news of a failing subject, the immediate reaction is emotional. Parents become angry. Very quickly the situation degenerates into a maelstrom of blame. “You must work harder! You should not play so many computer games! Why do you work so slowly? Why are you so careless?” This is the classic and most common emotion-oriented coping. It is also the form of coping with failure that is the most damaging because it gives free rein anger, anxiety and frustration. This mode of coping with failure leads to burnout.

As the parents’ negative emotions break in waves upon their children’s heads, the children go straight into avoidance-oriented coping. An invisible shell grows up around them that protects their fragile psyches from the waves of negative emotions that break upon their hapless heads. These children look like they do not care about their poor results. Yet, deep down inside, they do very much care. In fact they care so much that if they did not have the invisible shell up around them, these children would break from the sheer force of the waves of negative emotion.

To protect their hearts and prevent their hearts from breaking, such children go into avoidance-oriented coping. They try to do as little as possible. They may seek to copy homework relating to their failing subjects. They try to quickly complete work tasks relating to their failing subjects so that they can put them aside. This mode of coping with failure leads to a steady downward spiral in grades.

You cannot improve in a subject that you try to avoid. 

Presently, we examine the notion of task-oriented coping. In this mode of coping, attention is drawn away from the roiling anger, frustration and anxiety that flares up whenever a human being is faced with failure. Instead, the attention is channeled to a problem analysis and solution generation. Once one is drawn into this mental path, the fires of anger and frustration naturally die down for want of attention.

This was the exact mode of coping with failure that I explicitly modeled for, and taught my own son. In Primary 5, he was second last in class for Chinese. I looked at my very demoralized son and moved swiftly to extinguish the fires of his frustration and anxiety. I said, “Second last in class, is better than last in class. Last year, you were last in class in Chinese. This year, you are second last. You have improved.”

Next, I gave him a specific task to focus his attention on the problem. I asked him to go through his Chinese exam paper, and identify on a piece of paper (in point form) his weaknesses. When he came back with his bullet points scrawled untidily upon a piece of scrap paper, I asked him to explain to me his views. Then, I asked him to type out his points into the left column of a table. Together, we filled out the right column of the table with an action plan. The following table illustrates one problem area he had identified and the action plan that we next worked out together.

Once the table was filled out, the action plan looked easy enough. I saw a burden lift off my son’s small shoulders. His daunting failure had shrunk into a problem that could be easily resolved. If I had yelled at him and put fear into him, his daunting failure would have grown into monstrous proportions, looming over his head, invincible and unconquerable. Faced with a challenge of monstrous proportions for which the child has no solution, the child predictably avoids the problem by escaping to the pleasant realm of play.

In essence, I managed my son’s failure in the same way skilled managers in organisations manage crises. In a crisis at work when millions of dollars are at stake, the best managers keep their head, analyze the situation, calm their staff and move them into action.

The second motivation strategy useful in the face of failure is found HERE.

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