As millions of viewers have learned while watching the Olympics, not everyone can finish first—even when a win is expected. Todd Patkin says that we can all learn an important lesson in dealing with disappointment from several Olympians in particular, and he offers advice on how anyone can respond positively to mistakes and failures.
Chances are, you’re one of the millions of Americans who watched (often openmouthed) as the Olympic Games were aired from London. Without a doubt, the two weeks of competition were filled with triumphs, upsets, and surprises. For those of us in the United States, two specific occasions stood out as disappointments: First, when Jordyn Wieber, the reigning world champion, did not make the individual all-around in women’s gymnastics, and second, when McKayla Maroney did not receive the gold medal on the vault—an event she was practically “guaranteed” to win.
But according to Todd Patkin, what we should really take to heart and remember isn’t that Wieber’s and Maroney’s performances ended in upsets. Instead, we should be thinking about how we handle disappointment in our own lives.
“While you’ll probably never compete for a gold medal on the international stage, you will find yourself facing failure, dissatisfaction, and regret,” points out Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “How you choose to respond to those negative circumstances will set the tone for the way others see you, and most importantly, for your overall quality of life.”
Patkin points out that while many disappointed Olympic athletes had every reason to break down or to lash out in frustration (as some competitors did after poor performances), a large number instead chose to accept their results with class and dignity.
“I was very impressed by the attitudes of so many Olympians—such as American gymnast Aly Raisman, who showed the utmost class after being denied the bronze medal in the individual all-around as the result of a tiebreak rule,” he comments. “In the public eye, these athletes have shown the world what it means to display grace in the face of defeat. They have also embodied what I think it means to show fairness to oneself while striving for a positive attitude.”
Unfortunately, Patkin says, most of us don’t show ourselves that much—if any—kindness when we fail or make a mistake. Instead, we tend to beat ourselves up mercilessly, even though this reaction is unhealthy and unhelpful. Here, Patkin shares eight tips to help you learn to be easier on yourself when you’re facing one of life’s failures—all of which are inspired by many of the world’s amazing Olympians.
Get some perspective. Have you ever noticed that people have trouble putting mistakes into context? The Olympic Games are full of examples. For instance, couch potatoes around the world have been focusing on what gymnasts haven’t done correctly: “Her foot slipped off the beam right there! She messed up!” It’s a toss-up as to whether these armchair commentators will also exclaim, “How incredible! She is doing backflips on a four-inch-wide piece of wood! What an impressive, world-class athlete.” Unfortunately, though, this is representative of how our culture operates. We focus on what went wrong, no matter how small, and ignore all of the wonderful things that went well.
Put someone else in your shoes. Most people operate under a double standard they don’t even know exists: They treat others much more leniently than they do themselves. Think about it: If a good friend called you and was upset about being fired from an account at work, for instance, how would you react? You’d probably try to comfort her by reminding her of all of her other professional triumphs, and you’d also assure her that this was not the end of the world. But what if it were you being fired from that account? If you’re like many people, you’d berate yourself for being so inept, tell yourself that you were worthless, and become convinced that everything would go downhill from here.
Make a list of your successes. The fact is, most of us do at least one hundred things right for every one thing we do wrong. But because we tend to focus on these failures, we magnify them in our own minds and reinforce to ourselves just how “subpar” we think we are. From now on, try to “catch” yourself when you start to dwell on a mistake. Then, force yourself to name at least five things you did today that were good.
Surround yourself with cheerleaders. The words you tell yourself are important, but what you hear from other people can also make or break your attempts to handle failures in a positive manner. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with a team of personal “cheerleaders” who build you up and encourage you. (And, of course, you should make every effort to do the same thing for them!) Actually, studies show that you’ll be the average of the five people you spend the most time with in terms of your attitude and outlook.
Remind yourself that you’re normal. We live in a culture that revolves around success, achievement, and making it to the next rung of the ladder. In the midst of such obsession with perfection, it may come as a shock to realize that failure, at least some of the time, is normal and inevitable! Believe it or not, we are all human, and thus fallible. It’s impossible to get everything right all of the time—even when, like Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney, you’re at the very top of your field. (And just think how many mistakes those young women undoubtedly made while working toward their current mastery of their sport!)
Learn from the mistake and move on. This is easy to say but harder to do—especially when the mistake is a “biggie,” like not performing as well as you’d hoped at the Olympics. It’s natural to go through a period of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and even grief after failing to realize a goal or dream. But eventually, for the sake of your health, your outlook, and your future, you have to find a way to forgive yourself and move forward.
Celebrate whenever you can. As Patkin has already pointed out, many people tend to totally gloss over their triumphs—big and small—and call attention only to their failures. But why torture yourself by acknowledging only what you do wrong? Instead, make a habit of noticing and celebrating your successes.
Fake it ’til you make it. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge and process all of your emotions. Patkin certainly isn’t suggesting that you ignore any negative feelings that bubble up after a failure or disappointment. What he does recommend is trying to react to setbacks with dignity, composure, and even optimism for the future—even if you’re tempted to lash out or vent your frustrations.
“When you choose to react to mistakes in a healthy way, you’ll speed up the healing process for yourself,” he promises. “I always remember UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s admonition that no one should be able to tell after a game whether you won or lost from your mannerisms, and I definitely think his advice was right on the money. Strive to become not only a better loser, but also a better winner. Both are characterized by humility, empathy, and the knowledge that no one is perfect.”
“Overall, I’d like to see Americans not only learn to be easier on themselves, but to change their perspectives on winning in general,” Patkin comments. “It saddens me that the lion’s share of Olympic accolades is reserved only for the gold medal winners, while the silver and bronze recipients typically receive very little coverage. Worst of all, fourth, fifth, etc. finishes are portrayed as losses. Again, let’s step back for a little perspective: That’s fourth or fifth place in the whole world—a tremendous accomplishment!
“Ultimately, for so many reasons, we all need to prioritize being easier on ourselves,” he concludes. “We’re all human, we’re all unique, and we all have so many things to be proud of. Oh, and one more thing: If you’re thinking that it’s just too difficult to change the way you think and react, and that you don’t want to put in the effort it will take to be easier on yourself, remember this: Your children will grow up to be like you. They will develop their attitudes and outlooks based on yours. So if you won’t change how you treat yourself for your own sake, do it for your kids…and for their kids after them.”
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.