When I was growing up in Bremerton, Washington, my next-door neighbors were an older couple, Donnie and Virginia. All the neighborhood kids adored Donnie. He loved to laugh and constantly played games with us, from horseshoes and basketball in the summer to jumping in big piles of Hazelnut leaves in the fall. Everything was fun for Donnie.
I knew that Donnie had been in the army in World War II. It seemed like a lot of fun, the way Donnie talked about it. “Oh, Bobbi-Bell,” he’d say, (all the girls in the neighborhood had “Bell” attached to their names by Donnie; my sisters were Jacquie-Bell and Susie-Bell) “We just had a ball!” Then he would tell a funny story about the war and the men in his platoon.
Only one time did I see Donnie’s impish face become somber when telling war stories. Our ragtag group of neighborhood kids was at his house, looking at some of the pictures of his platoon. “Donnie, what’s this?” one of the boys asked, holding up a picture. We gathered around the aging black and white photo. It showed a large pile up against a building. It was hard to tell what the pile consisted of at first and then we started to recognize the components. It was a mound of bodies, burned nearly beyond recognition, but even so we could see the striped clothing of the prisoners and the gauntness of their frames. Smoke still rose from the pile.
Donnie gently took the picture and put it in his pocket. “Let’s not look at that,” he said. His smile was gone as was the light in his eyes. We weren’t sure what to do; Donnie was never serious about anything. He broke the silence as he grabbed another picture and the sparkle in his eyes returned. “Now here’s one of ol’ Harry Aitken. Did I ever tell you about him . . .?”
As I grew older, I began to understand that Donnie’s humor was his way of bouncing back from a horrible time in his life. His unit was often tasked with traveling ahead of the main army and he had seen many, many atrocious sights. But he chose to concentrate on the funny things that happened and this served him well throughout the war and the rest of his life.
Donnie died a few years ago. I still miss him. Last year, I discovered some of his writing about the war in an online newsletter. Here are some snippets of Donnie’s unique perspective on World War II:
“It has not been revealed until now just how close the German army came to complete annihilation at the hands of two platoon cooks. A shell hit the wall of Alphie Langlois’ kitchen of the first platoon and Walter “Cue Ball” Miller of the 3rd platoon. It ruined the coffee and stew they were brewing up for the evening meal. The cooks grabbed their cleavers and headed for the Kraut lines to make mincemeat. About 20 GIs grabbed them, and they stormed back into their kitchens mumbling dire threats to any Krauts that might fall into their hands.”
“The toughest job developed when we went to the latrine. In the middle of the chore the whistling and screaming of a 220 on its way was not inducement for leisurely meditation.”
“Harry Aitken confiscated a piano accordion and began to teach himself, using the trial and error method. This procedure was called the “Aitken touch.” After diligent practice daily for several weeks, to the horror and woe of the 3rd platoon GIs, he could bang out familiar tunes – if he told us the title before he played. All platoons hooked up their telephones so we could all hear, even though it did hurt our ears, but it was surprising what a little “music” could do for one’s soul and it did soothe our nerves. Every day at 5:30 (when possible) “Harry’s All Request Hour” went on the air.”
“We moved out into the field and began a slow, determined push toward the Roer River, meeting bitter resistance. But the humor was still there. One night while trying to rest in a pillbox during heavy artillery shelling, Lt. Bruce Reid leaned over to me and asked: ‘Swede, do you think this will ever replace night baseball?’”
Takeaway points: Although not a cure-all, sometimes humor is the best resiliency skill in your toolbox.
In loving tribute to Donald E. “Swede” Larson, 1st. Lieut., Co. H., 405th Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division. European Theater, 1942-1946.
Why are we so failure-aversive? The need to have control is part of the problem, according to Paul Iske, founder of The Institute of Brilliant Failures. We need to let go of this and realize there are some essential reasons things don’t always work out like we expect them to:
- We live and work in a complex environment.
- We overlook side effects. [They can be the answer you’re actually looking for!]
- We don’t know long-term consequences.
- The world can change.
- We don’t understand all interdependencies of the situation.
Trying to exert enough control so you don’t make a mistake can be crazy-making, especially considering the dynamics listed above. So, I have four suggestions:
1. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I fail?”
I was listening to our local NPR station the other day when author Tim Harford was being interviewed about his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Host Dave Iverson and Harford were discussing how important it is to learn from failures. A very brave man called in and said he had been a nurse for over 30 years and he remembered that one time, early in his career, he had made a mistake with medication. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “That’s got to be the worst thing that can happen to a nurse.” The caller said his supervisor asked him to tell the other nurses about his error and, when he progressed in his career and mentored other nurses, to tell them as well. His supervisor wanted the mistake to become a learning point for not only him, but for others as well. Rather than seeing this as shameful, the man said it was a great lesson for him that others can benefit when we share our failures.
So, even if “the worst thing that can happen” may be dire, you and others may gather extremely useful information from the failure. And, it’s likely that “the worst thing that can happen” won’t be that dire and answering your own question about this will give you a better, more realistic perspective about the situation.
2. Consider the dynamics and let go of control.
Look at the bullet points above again. There are many, many things that can affect the outcome of our behaviors and efforts. Although you do need some control to function effectively in life, trying to micromanage things that are out of your control will definitely increase your stress level. Take a breath . . . step away from the control button.
3. Don’t forget the side effects.
I think this is one of Iske’s most relevant points. Try not to get so focused on the exact parameters of success in your situation that you overlook other positive aspects that may arise even if you fail at your goal. Remember, Christopher Columbus “failed” at finding a passage to the Far East, but he discovered a whole new continent in the midst of his failure.
4. Realize you’re in good company.
Failing and making mistakes is part of being human. Some of our greatest heroes experienced hundreds of failures before succeeding. Doug Toft commented on my last post and gave us a great website that shows many examples of this. It’s pretty inspiring to realize the company that we’re in as flawed human beings. If these people became who they are because of their failures, sign me up to fail!
Takeaway points: Trying to control for every eventuality so you don’t make a mistake will drive you crazy. Get a different perspective by realizing that failures are a part of the human condition and may even be necessary for us to learn and succeed. Side effects of failures can lead us to places of success we didn’t even know were possible.
What are your thoughts on failure?
My partner, Andrea, is very creative so when I have a problem or want to develop a new idea, I often seek out her opinion. This prompts a raucous round of brainstorming which inevitably produces a result that is not only satisfying, but energizing as well. We both feel victorious and Andrea often playfully raises her arms and shouts, “I am freaking brilliant!”
Want to know how to be freaking brilliant? Celebrate your failures and learn from them. There is a whole Institute devoted to this idea. Really. The Institute of Brilliant Failures “aims to promote a positive attitude toward failures.” The website lists dozens of famous and not-so-famous failures that resulted in new products, creative development ideas, and personal growth for individuals.
The founder of The Institute, Paul Iske, cites the creation of Viagra as an example of a brilliant failure. Viagra was originally developed to treat angina. It failed miserably. But it did have this side effect that seemed promising . . . You know the rest of the story.
Iske says that most people are too afraid of failure to change, thus we take fewer risks and innovation decreases. This doesn’t make sense to him. “Think about it,” he said in a 2011 Tedx Talk, “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it innovation.”
More sites are popping up now that are dedicated to learning from failures. Check out AdmittingFailure and FailFaire to see how nonprofits and businesses are publicly sharing their failures so that all can see what doesn’t work in order to make something that does.
I love this idea of brilliant failures. How many times have you stopped innovating in your personal life due to a failure? What would happen if we changed the culture of failure from something shameful to something to celebrate?
In our brainstorming sessions, most of the ideas Andrea and I come up with won’t or don’t work. They fail. But out of these failed creations spring “side effect” ideas that eventually lead us to the one that does work.
It’s freaking brilliant.
Takeaway points: Failure has a bad rap in our society. When something doesn’t work in your life, look for the side effects and see if a new idea or solution is in there.
What have you learned from your brilliant failures?
Next time: Letting go of control to make failures more brilliant.
On January 15, 2009, he was flying on US Airways flight 1549 to Charlotte, North Carolina. Less than three minutes into the flight, the pilot cut the engines and told his passengers to brace for impact.
Put yourself on that plane. What would you think about? Here are the gifts passenger Ric Elias found in those seconds before the plane crash-landed into the Hudson River.
Takeaway points: Life is short. We hear that all the time and, somewhere inside, we know it to be true. But how do we live life fully? Look for gifts even in the worst of times.
How do you keep perspective in your life so you can truly enjoy the moment, relationships, and love?
A great way to build your resilience skills is to learn to meet the challenge of your greatest fear. Did you know that many, many people fear public speaking more than death itself? If you’re one of those folks, here are some ideas that will help you become more comfortable whether you’re giving a speech in front of hundreds or are called on at a management meeting.
1. Discover if you are a Habituater or a Sensitizer.
Paul L. Witt, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, conducted a study which found that some people are just hard-wired to be anxious about public speaking. Others get nervous, but can overcome it. Find out which type you are and get some great hints for how to handle your anxiety here.
2. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Most of us tend to catastrophize when we have to speak in public, telling ourselves that it would be just awful or horrible if something went wrong during our talk. Ask yourself these questions:
Have you ever seen someone else make a mistake or be nervous when they spoke in public? Did lightning strike? Did they have a heart attack and die? Or did they just keep talking?
What was the worst thing that ever happened to you when speaking in a public forum? Did lightning strike? If it felt just awful or horrible, does that mean your talk was also just awful or horrible? Probably not. Remember that emotions don’t always equate to reality!
3. Remember that your audience wants you to do well.
Most people who hate speaking in public are consumed with fear of being nervous and that their listeners will notice it. Remember these points:
Your audience wants you to do well. They are pulling for you and are certainly not sitting in judgment of your performance.
It’s likely that your listeners also hate speaking in public! So, they are quite sympathetic to any nerves you may display.
Most of the time, your audience doesn’t even notice that you are nervous. Have you ever told someone after you spoke in public that you were so nervous, only to have the person say, “Really? You didn’t look nervous.”
4. Have a sense of humor.
So, let’s say the worst thing happens. You get dry mouth. Your hands start to shake. You forget what you were going to say.
Make fun of yourself. “Hang on, I need to take a drink of water – my mouth is like the Sahara right now.”
“Wait a minute – I’m having a senior moment.” (If you’re old enough to be a senior.) “Wait a minute – I’m practicing to have senior moments.” (If you’re not quite a senior yet.)
Sharing your speaking process – and the quirks that come along with it - is a good way to both make the audience laugh and create a connection with them. They learn that you are a regular human being like them and your credibility is instantly increased.
I know, I know. You hear this all the time and it’s getting old. But, if there’s ever a time to remember to breathe, it’s when you are speaking in front of a group! It’s an automatic response to have shallow breaths when you are nervous. The problem is, this signals to your body that you are in a fight-or-flight situation so it starts pumping more adrenaline, which causes you to feel even more anxious . . .
Pausing during talks is a good practice at any time. It helps the audience to digest what you have just said and can put emphasis on an important point in your speech. Use the pause opportunity to take a few regular breaths and reduce your heart rate.
Takeaway points: If you can breathe, remember that your audience is on your side, realize that lighting doesn’t strike if you make a mistake, and add some humor to your talk, you’re well on your way to bouncing back from your fear of public speaking!
What helps you when you have to speak in public?
For more great resources about overcoming fear of public speaking, check out this article.
I had a client in an Early (Alcohol/Drug abuse) Recovery group who articulated so beautifully how she felt like such a stranger in a strange land in her life in San Francisco. I very distinctly remember her asking, “Where is my tribe?” I suspect a lot of people turn to addictions out of lack of connection to a tribe.
I asked Martha to follow up on this idea a bit more.
BE: In your story about the woman in your Recovery group, what was important to the woman about having a tribe?
MCS: Tribal peers are a comfort because they speak the same language. There is something shared amongst tribal members that increase feelings of affinity and belonging. Without these feelings, the isolation is hard for some people to take. This woman was aware enough in her early recovery to know that what she longed for was a safe, healthy place to belong.
Can you say more about why you think people may turn to addictions due to lack of a tribe?
Paths to addiction vary widely. However, most paths seem to involve a person who turns to alcohol or other addictions to block how isolated or alone they feel. Some people drink and drug in isolation from the start. For others, the initial pull to alcohol or drug use is that while under-the-influence, they might feel less isolated because everyone in the bar is part of a drinking tribe. Over time, however, most addicts I have known report that their addiction resulted in more, rather than less, isolation.
Do you see the Recovery process as an initiation? If so, how important is the idea of receiving a Homecoming from the tribe? What happens if a Homecoming doesn’t happen?
My bias is that a Recovery process that includes initiation and homecoming is more likely to have success. Twelve-step fellowships are merely one option for the pursuit of recovery but as an example, meetings are structured to welcome the newcomer immediately. Not all newcomers successfully switch from their drinking or drugging tribe to a clean-and-sober tribe but the likelihood of this is greater if there is an alternative tribe to go toward. I’ve known some folks to find their clean-and-sober tribe in a residential recovery treatment but as soon as they leave (typically 28 days later), they can relapse if they don’t transition to a more local tribe that promotes sobriety.
What happens if a person in Recovery doesn’t have a tribe? Or maybe they don’t want a tribe because they are used to being alone?
It is entirely possible to get clean-and-sober without a tribe; I just think it is much, much harder. It’s also important to note that for some, the goal of Recovery is not sobriety but more responsible substance use. But even if this is the goal, it would help to achieve that goal if one were part of a tribe of folks with that same goal. A chosen tribe will have values that bolster you when you are inclined to falter. Without that support, it is almost as if the individual must be a tribe unto him- or herself and that is very hard to pull off, especially in early sobriety or moderation. I’ve also known some folks who are successful at being “dry” (i.e. alcohol- or drug-free) but their Recovery sort of gets arrested; they have no tribe to support their forward movement and growth.
Takeaway points: Being a part of a tribe is important throughout life, but it is essential to have one when trying to make a huge life change such as recovering from alcohol and drugs.
What are your ideas about the tribe’s role when trying to make a significant life change?