Failure: The Key Ingredient To Winning

I’ve always been fascinated by people who possess the skills necessary to use adversity to refine the roadmap to their ultimate goal while other equally talented and driven people allow it to completely kill their confidence and derail their dreams.

Most of us know that Apple’s board of directors fired Steve Jobs in 1985 and many of us know that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. But how were they able to bounce back and become legends? Was it purely their athletic ability and intellect or were other mental skills involved?

During my athletic career as a professional football player, an Olympic Skier and presently as a tech CEO, I have witnessed world-class athletes and entrepreneurs crumble and fade into oblivion due to one major set back. And if you read my bio, it may appear that I’ve been successful at most things that I have tried — but bios don’t show the full narrative. I have failed hundreds of more times than each milestone that I have reached. Although I have not come close to mastering the skill of leveraging adversity to create success, I am a student of the topic because I believe it’s the most important skill necessary to learn in order to reach your full potential.

In my life, I have been lucky to be surrounded by some of the best athletes and entrepreneurs in the world. Through my own experience, observing others and asking lots of questions I have come up with what I believe are five of the most important things to master to ensure the good days don’t go to your head and the bad days don’t go to your heart.

1. Set a move-on date

When you are experiencing adversity, I believe the most important first step to take is to consciously set a time and date when you are going to commit to moving on. If you lose a big-name client, don’t receive a promotion or didn’t score a key partnership, you need to let go in order to move forward.

When I experienced the biggest loss of my professional skiing career at the 2006 Olympics I gave myself 48 hours to obsess over everything that happened. Nobody could talk to me because I was completely in my head replaying everything that had happened leading up to my event. I allowed myself to mourn in whatever way felt natural. But after that 48 hour window closed, I fully committed myself to moving on.

2. Don’t personalize the wins or losses

It’s natural to allow our wins and losses to define us as human beings. After all, the world showers winners with love and admiration – and it feels great to win. But I believe the happiest and most successful athletes and business execs are the ones who are exceptional at taking the highs and the lows in stride and don’t allow them to define the strength of their confidence.

When something doesn’t go your way, understand that it may not be just about you. The situation – or outcome—may have been completely out of your control and you can’t take the situation to heart.

3. Give up your need to win

This was a completely foreign concept to me before reading the book The Power of Intention by Dr. Wayne Dyer in 2004. The motivation that drove me my entire life centered on the idea of beating other people and becoming the best in the world. So when I first tried this on this size – being okay with not winning – I felt completely naked, and I didn’t like it. But I committed myself to embracing the idea and seeing where it took me. I even started helping some of my biggest competitors with advice on skiing course conditions. It felt liberating and ironically I started winning much more often. In fact, the following year I won more World Cup Gold Medals than anyone in the sport’s history.

In business, this may mean giving up your need to get acquired or go through an IPO. Although that might not jive with your investors it could give you the piece of mind to focus on the important things like product delivery and customer success. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, says he owns “the best that I can do”, not the “outcome.” Be bold, take calculated risks and let the chips fall where they may.

4. Feed your intrinsically motivated ideas

Unless you were born in a Buddhist society, chances are that you have at least some extrinsic motivating forces programed inside your DNA. Extrinsically motivated people allow power, money and fame to steer their goals while intrinsically motivated people are more focused on personal growth, giving back and learning something new. Extrinsically motivated people tend to measure their self worth based on how they stack up to others. However, that is a game you will never win. There is always someone who has more, is smarter and better liked. I don’t know the key to happiness but the key to failure is trying to always impress everyone.

For entrepreneurs, this might mean focusing less on the end result and concentrating more on the elements of your business that are in your control. Things like building a great team, positively influencing your culture and thought leadership.

5. Sharpen your mental sword

Do you think you are mentally strong? This can be difficult to answer, as there is no SAT for mental toughness. What I have found in my life to be true is that my mental toughness follows inline with my current life circumstance. If I’m going through adversity I tend to be more mentally strong, because I am forced to exercise that part of my brain to overcome the obstacle. Conversely, at times in my life where I am comfortable, I tend to be at my weakest mentally. I think it’s important during these times that we mentally exercise our brain to build mental toughness. To do this, I like to give up things that I really enjoy for 30 days.

You could also dedicate yourself to spending thirty minutes a day towards learning a new skill. This could be a mental skill like meditation or a physical skill like karate. The key is to make sure to stick to doing whatever you chose for thirty minutes everyday.

With these tips in mind, also remember that success is never linear; it’s always up and down. The down moments will ultimately play a critical role in reaching your goals. As David Horowitz says in his book The Hard Things about the Hard Things, the most difficult job business leaders have is managing their own psychology. Whether you’re looking to start a new company or reach a new revenue goal, it’s a well-defined goal with moments of defeat along the way – not a dream – that will guide your journey to success.

I Write Things.