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How to Debrief Catastrophic Failure (Part 1)

Where do you go after a failure?

Failure is part of life. Everyone fails. Failure can be anything from missing a free throw to bankruptcy to letting down the people closest to you.

Where do you go after a failure?

This is Part 1 of a series on failure. Be sure to read Part 2 when you’re done.

Failure may cause regret, sadness, or desperation. Or, handled rightly, failure can lead to inspiration and success.

Failure is part of life, but agony doesn’t need to be.

I used to want to be a cop. I spent two and a half years interviewing at every single police department and sheriff’s office within an hour’s drive of my home. For that entire time if a department was hiring one new officer, I’d place second. If they were hiring three, I’d place fourth. I failed at becoming a cop, but it turned out to be a good thing.

Before that, in college, I failed as a mathematics major in the first class of what would have been my senior year. Ultimately, I graduated with a psych degree. I had started the psych degree because I thought it would help be become a cop. But in the final semester of the psych program, I applied and was accepted to the counseling program at Western Seminary.

I am familiar with failure. My failures have led me here. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Sometimes the right way to respond to failure is to change directions. The road I’m on now is a lot different than a career as a cop. Sometimes the right way to respond to failure is to keep going. Imagine how different life today would be if Thomas Edison had given up on inventing the light bulb. He said, “I haven’t failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

When you have failed, how did you know whether to press on, or pivot?

Here is one way. It actually comes from the field of addiction psychology, from a framework to help addicts debrief a relapse in order to prevent future relapses.

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It is amazing that in life, we do this whole process only semi-consciously, and in fractions of a second. But talking about it takes a long time, and processing it takes longer. But each fully processed failure can prevent future unconscious failures – so investing the time to fully debrief past failures is very worth it.

Get Perspective on the Failure

The cost of failure is different for everyone. The cost of a missed free throw in basketball is different depending on what level you’re playing at. If you’re six years old playing your first game, it doesn’t cost much. If you’re in the NBA, it could cost the playoffs or next year’s contract. Either way, it is something to learn from and a relatively easy failure to bounce back from.

The cost of buying a house that you can’t afford might be foreclosure or bankruptcy. This life lesson is much harder than missing a free throw, and it is much more difficult to bounce back from. But it’s not impossible to bounce back from.

You can go wrong here by either exaggerating or minimizing the cost of your failure. If you exaggerate the costs, you might quit when you should keep going. If you minimize the costs, you might keep going when you should quit.

To count the cost of failure, consider the currencies of relationships, time, and money, and answer these questions:

  1. Who is impacted by this?
    • How important are they to me?
  2. How long will it take to recover from this?
    • How will I make time for it?
  3. What is the financial cost to recover from this?
    • How will I pay for it?

Describe the Failure Event in Detail

What happened? Don’t just give an off the cuff answer, put some serious thought into it. A cursory answer will not help you make a good decision about whether to quit or press on. But a detailed answer will lead to a well informed decision.

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Try to recap what happened with gradually increasing detail.

  1. Perceptions
    1. What did you see?
    2. What did you hear?
    3. What did you feel (sense of touch, not emotions)?
    4. What did taste?
    5. What did you smell?

What Thoughts Led to Failure?

Perceptions cause thoughts. But not all perceptions accurately represent reality. Bad perceptions lead to thinking errors. Start by answering the question, “What did you think?” and watch for these thinking errors:

  1. Exaggerating – making certain aspects of a situation seem bigger than they really are.
    • Try to get an outsider’s opinion
    • Try a pro/con list
  2. Minimizing – making certain aspects of a situation seem smaller than they really are
    • Try to get an outsider’s opinion
    • Try a pro/con list
  3. Positive Bias. Confirmation bias. This is when your thinking focuses on good aspects of a situation that is objectively neutral or bad. This is one way to combine thinking errors 1 and 2, by exaggerating the good, and minimizing the bad.
    • Try using a prioritization grid to sort things out
  4. Negative Bias. Negation bias. This is is when your thinking focuses on bad aspects of a situation that is objectively neutral or good. This is the second way to combine thinking errors 1 and 2, by exaggerating the bad and minimizing the good.
    • Try using a prioritization grid to sort things out
  5. All-or-nothing thinking. Black or white thinking. Binary errors. This happens when you have a long term pattern of thinking errors 4 or 5. This is when you use words like “always” or “never.”
    • If you used “always” to describe what you thought, ask yourself, “has it ever NOT happened that way?”
    • If you used “never” to describe what you thought, as yourself, “has it ever happened that way?”
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What Feelings Led to Failure?

Thoughts cause feelings. Whatever you thought about what you perceived in the situation caused you to feel a certain way.

From the time we were infants crying to be fed, we have learned to feel a certain way about that type of situation.

Just like there are primary colors, there are primary emotions – joy, sadness, and fear. All other emotions are secondary or complex emotions. Secondary emotions are results of primary emotions – like links in a chain. Complex emotions are mixed emotions – like coffee, cream, and sugar.

The experience of complex emotions is extremely subjective – unique to every individual. The experience of secondary emotions is only slightly less subjective. But experience of primary emotions is fairly universal – joy and sadness are understood across cultures and languages.

When you’re answering the question, “What did you feel?” Do your best to boil it down to how much joy, sadness, or fear you felt in the midst of the situation. This will be the most relatable and repeatable way of describing the situation to other people.

The illustration below adds anger as a fourth primary emotion, and illustrates the emotional theory used in the Disney movie Inside Out (My daughter, Keaton’s current favorite).

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, Emotions and Color, Emotion Wheel, Color Wheel, Understanding Emotions

Discussion

  1. What failures in your life have turned out to be blessings?
  2. What helped you decide whether to press on or pivot?

Don’t forget to read Part 2 of this series.

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About the Author

I am a men's issues and marriage counselor in Vancouver, WA. I'm also the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of the Broken and a contributor to the Honorable Gentlemen project. I live to empower men to restore relationships.

  • Mitra says:

    This was a very helpful post, Stephen. I appreciate how you offer ways for people to practically and more objectively think through failure, or perhaps just processing through responses to unwanted or unexpected events in life. The emotional wheel is fascinating. This is a great visual of how emotions vary in quality and degree of intensity. Acute mood and personality disorders tend to stay in the center realm or progress there quickly (or fluctuate between these emotions, as in some experiences of bipolar and borderline). This wheel could help people monitor their emotional patterns, especially while evaluating the link between perception, thought, behavior, and emotion, as you pointed out. Thanks for posting!

  • Mitra says:

    I don’t know why I referred to you by your last name, Dan. 😉 Long day.

  • Dan says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found it helpful.

  • Dan says:

    No problem. I actually didn’t even notice. My whole time in the Marines I went by my last name.

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