Using Failure to Identify Your Blind Spots

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Failure is a great teacher but also a cryptic one. Deciphering ‘teachable moments’ from such experiences is no easy task to begin with and doing so while dealing with feelings of frustration, disappointment, demoralization, resentment, embarrassment, and even hopelessness, is even harder.

Viewing failures as teaching tools is no mere consolation prize. Rather, failures provide us with vital information about our psychological blind spots we would not have access to otherwise. Specifically, our psychological makeup is such that we tend to make only a few mistakes and repeat them in endless varieties. That is the definition of a working blind spot, a repetitive error we don’t see and keep making. Imagine having a crystal ball that tells you what mistakes you are most likely to make in the future. You would happily watch out for them and correct them. Well, failure is that crystal ball.

Failures provide us with vital information about our psychological blind spots we would not have access to otherwise.

Let’s take time management as an example. Why do people who struggle with time management have such a hard time correcting their behavior? The answer is they are unaware of the specific blind spot that trips them up each time. They might know they struggle with time management but they are not aware of where their crucial error occurs, errors such as constantly underestimating how long it takes to complete certain tasks, rushing the planning stages and neglecting to leave time for crucial variables, or forgetting to build in cushions for unforeseen eventualities. If they knew their specific blind spot they could build in mechanisms to catch it and compensate for it in the future, but alas, they do not and so time management is a constant struggle.

Failures are incredibly valuable because they allow us to analyze our tasks and performance and by doing so, identify our blind spots. Our blind spots are likely to manifest in three areas of task performance: planning, preparation, and execution. Here are the questions you need to consider for each area.

1. Planning.

Did you spend time planning how to achieve the goal or task? If not, why not? How did you convince yourself doing so wasn’t necessary? If you did invest time in planning, was it sufficient? If not, how did you justify not taking more time to plan? The rationalizations and excuses you used previously are likely to be the ones you use in the future (e.g., “It’ll be fine,” “I know what I’m doing,” etc…).

2. Preparation.

Preparation involves putting the necessary elements into place in accordance with your plan (e.g., improve a relevant skill set). In hindsight, how well prepared were you? How could you have improved your preparation? What aspects of preparation did you neglect? How did you justify neglecting them? If you believe certain preparatory steps were unnecessary, how much time would it have taken to do them anyway? Would you consider doing them next time? Have you considered how such steps might add value by increasing your confidence or reducing your anxiety?

Our blind spots are likely to manifest in three areas of task performance: planning, preparation, and execution.

3. Execution.

How consistent were your effort, progress, motivation, and mindset? Were you monitoring each of those variables as you moved forward? Go back and identify where they each might have lagged, and what made them do so. Come up with strategies for what you can do in the future if your efforts decrease, you progress stalls, your motivation lags, or your mindset becomes more negative. Identify the first signs of a problem. Did you make any adjustments at the time and if not, why not? Make a list of warning signs associated with lags in each of those four elements so you don’t miss them in the future.

Once you’ve answered all the questions and identified your blind spots, list all the aspects of the task (in sequence) that you need to be especially mindful of in the future. Do not assume you’ll remember them and do not assume you’ll catch them because you see them now—you won’t. Blind spots are very tricky that way. Refer to your list whenever you pursue goals/tasks so you can catch your mistakes as soon as they appear and correct them immediately.

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Image credit: shock77 / 123RF Stock Photo

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, keynote speaker, and author. His new book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). He also writes The Squeaky Wheel Blog for Psychology Today.com. His private practice is in Manhattan.

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