Eliminate failure with mental simulations

Chris Hadfield has orbited Earth over 2,000 times and spent close to 4,000 hours in space.

He’s arguably the most famous astronaut of our age, and his work has shed an intimate insight into what we know about the experience of life beyond the surface of our planet.

Naturally, being an astronaut isn’t easy. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and it entails vast uncertainty. We might have a strong theoretical framework for how we expect the laws of physics to interact in space, but in reality, we’re still venturing into the unknown.

Astronauts go through years and years of training to prepare themselves. In Hadfield’s case, he spent only a total of six months in space, but he was in the field for 21 years.

For much of that time, his job description was to foresee any potential risks and solve any probable problems before he was in an actual situation during a mission. No issue was too big or too small to consider. It was about being thoroughly prepared.

Although most of his training was done in simulated physical environments, Hadfield had his own tactics, too. For him, mental simulations were an even bigger part of the equation.

Now, most of us don’t have to worry about life in space, but there is wisdom in his method.

In life, problems will arise, and sometimes, these problems will force us to quit something dear to us. That doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but it often seems that way. That’s where mental simulations come into play. We can use them to help us eliminate failure by:

  • Visualizing challenges to combat uncertainty
  • Recognizing the beneficial trade-offs of failing
  • Having a plan in place to leverage these trade-offs

The feeling of loss is seldom a physical loss, and that means that you can learn to reframe it.

Visualize challenges to combat uncertainty

People often use mental simulations to visualize success. It’s a fairly common piece of advice. To get to where you want to be, they say, you have to mentally see yourself there. They believe that we’re better able to reach our destination if we have a visual connection to it.

Confidence counts, so there likely are parts of the idea that carry some weight, but it’s far from the whole story. By itself, it’s nothing more than an imagined possibility that inspires doses of short-lived excitement. It doesn’t add a thing to the process of getting there.

A more practical exercise is to visualize failure. We can do this by thoroughly breaking down the path ahead in an attempt to identify where possible challenges will arise, including worst-case scenarios. This trick allows us to plot solutions to potential problems, and it familiarizes us with the least desirable outcome.

In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield calls this the power of negative thinking. In both his life and his work, rather than visualizing the desired result, his strategy has been to unhinge all part of the process and question where things could go wrong.1

He actively thinks about where he can fail and what he can do about it before it ever happens. To him, it’s about proactivity instead of reactivity. It’s a simple system that increases the odds that an optimal solution will present itself when it’s needed.

Visualizing failure is a very effective way of thinking about process improvement in general, but it’s arguably even more useful as a tool to desensitize ourselves to the idea of failing.

We fear failure for two primary reasons: uncertainty and the burden of expectations. We either don’t know what’s on the other side, or our bar for success is so focused that we haven’t fully considered any alternatives.

By really dissecting the worst-case scenario – which often isn’t as bad we think it is – and by trying to understand it rationally, we can hack away at the irrationality that causes either fear.

Recognize the beneficial trade-offs of failing

Humans are incredibly versatile. We’ve survived in so many varied climates that we’ve had to evolve to match the variety of external stimuli with our own arsenal of internal responses.

In many ways, the pace of innovation around us has increased to a point where evolution can’t keep up. This has lead to a mismatch between our environment and our biology. More than ever, it’s on us to use this flexible range of internal responses to continuously readapt.

When it comes to quitting, it can be hard to fully consider any outcome as desirable other than the one we’ve set our mind to. That’s what makes failure so difficult to digest. But it’s important to remember that any outcome, even the good ones, are a product of trade-offs.

In life, anytime we make a decision or find ourselves on a particular road, it’s because some other possibilities that could have occurred didn’t. The cost of success is a benefit of failure.

If you’re an artist on the side and you’ve put in work hoping to leave your day job, but it’s beginning to look like that’s just not a feasibility, then you’re going to feel like you’ve lost. And given that this was your expectation, in your subjective reality, that might be true.

That said, another truth is that you’ve now also guaranteed yourself the freedom to not tie your income to the stress and uncertainty that comes with entrepreneurship. On top of that, you’re also freed from catering your art and your creativity to the demands of the market.

You might have been okay with the uncertainty and the odd compromise, but that doesn’t mean that your situation doesn’t still open up a different kind of opportunity for you. You can take your passion in a new and authentic direction, free from pressure and compromise.

Now, it’s not easy to readjust a mindset after striving for and failing to achieve something that took a lot of work. This is especially true for relationships and passionate pursuits, but by mentally simulating the beneficial trade-offs between alternatives, you can prepare yourself a little better. By considering these things before they happen, you can hedge the risk of quitting.

You can choose to recognize some of the consequences of your goals and use them to realize that not only is failure often not as bad as you think it is but not everything about failing is bad.

Have a plan in place to leverage the trade-offs

It’s important to note that, as valuable as mental simulations are, there is a potential downside.

If you focus too much on shifting your narrative away from what you want to accomplish, there’s a risk of welcoming complacency, and that’s not where you want to end up. Subjective or not, if something is worth fearing failure for, it’s probably worth striving for, too.

Therefore, simulations are a method of preparation and just that. The full focus should still be on moving in the direction that you deem optimal. Only if you don’t get there, you can make use of what you learned through the simulations to shift the narrative of failure to opportunity.

If you prepare your mind accordingly, when failure does occur, it will no doubt still be difficult to digest, but it likely won’t be as debilitating because there will be a plan in place to shift from whatever didn’t work to the contingency recognized in the trade-offs of success.

If the gain of losing is the freedom from external pressure, for example, it’s about having a plan and a routine ready so that you can get excited for whatever that freedom allows you to do.

Once momentum catches, you’ll have something new to think about and build on and work towards. It will distract you away from what you’ve just missed. You’ll have a new focus.

An example is a rebound relationship. Contrary to popular belief, research suggests a fairly strong link between the lack of time between relationships and a subject’s feelings of well-being and self-esteem. Naturally, the key lies in the quality of the new relationship.2

It might be difficult to open up again right after a breakup, but it appears that a pretty good way to move on is to direct time and energy to a new and healthy connection elsewhere. 3

Of course, that’s a very circumstantial example, but the idea is to limit the time spent dwelling by being proactive in addressing the new reality. After a while, it becomes the new norm.

Leverage the opportunity in trade-offs to quickly adjust to the thought of whatever is ahead.

All you need to know

There’s a difference between our subjective experience and the objective reality. We all have our subjective preferences, and they’re what make one way of life more preferable than another. The objective world, however, doesn’t carry this bias. It just sees what’s there as it is.

The pain of failing is a result of a poor match between our subjective preferences and the objective reality. It’s not an easy thing to deal with, but it also doesn’t have to be too difficult.

With adequate preparation, you can learn how to fail successfully. You can find opportunity in a loss when it does occur, and as a result, you can, at the very least, minimize the potential harm of quitting. This strategy combines mental simulations with deliberate action into three steps.

I. Visualize failure to combat uncertainty. By breaking down the process that leads to a desired result and questioning where things could go wrong, you are better prepared if they do indeed go wrong. The worst-case scenario is rarely as bad as you think it is, and by familiarizing yourself with it, you can combat the irrational fears, too.

II. Recognize the beneficial trade-offs of failing. No matter what you do, it’s always at the expense of something else, whether it be time, money, or a different opportunity. By simulating the costs of succeeding and aligning them as benefits of failing, you can prepare for potential pain by realizing that not everything about failing is bad.

III. If failure does occur, the contingency is to shift from the mindset of failing to one of exploring a new opportunity by using the tools provided by the mental simulations. It’s about having a plan in place to recognize the possibility in the trade-offs that would otherwise have been made if failure wasn’t the outcome. It’s about refocusing.

How you feel about something isn’t set in stone. You do have a choice in how you respond to your external environment, and with the right tactics, you can turn failure into an opportunity. You can reframe reality. Not always, not easily, and not overnight, but it’s not impossible.

Aim to win. Do the work and keep moving, but know that there’s more than one way forward.

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