Words of Wellness: 'Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail'

Many of us experience tragedy or hardship throughout our lives, and at times, it may feel like it’s impossible to overcome our struggles.  But with the right tools and state of mind, encountering failure could very well never keep you down again.

Rom Brafman, a practicing psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, detailed in his latest book Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail how success and happiness are still achievable even when adversity hits.  After interviewing a number of lucrative people, all with unique tales about overcoming their misfortunes, Brafman created a critical guide to facing life’s challenges head on.

Q:  What inspired you to write this book?

A:  It really emanated from my work with clients over the years.  One of the things that I’ve seen is that they seem like normal high functioning people, but then you hear about their life story, and it’s almost unbelievable the amount of stuff they’ve been through.  Families where no one was there for them, overcoming abuse, tragedies in life.  But they seem so well adjusted and so normal.  So I asked them, 'How do you think you were able to come out on top, given everything that’s happen?'  And they usually don’t know.

So it made me ask myself, ‘What if my life was like that?’  Would I have ended up being the same, or would I have given in to all the difficulties?

Q:  What were some of the situational circumstances that you studied?

A:  A lot of it had to do with childhood tragedies or situations in life that were traumatic.  I looked it an Iraq war veteran who lost his arm.  He said from the beginning of his second tour in Iraq, his company was continuously attacked.  And then one day, he was in a situation where he was going through a quiet village, and he accidentally tapped a booby trap that set off an explosive, taking his arm.  But he had such a good sense of humor and came through just fine.

There’s also a story of the person who invented the microwave oven.  As a child, his dad died in a factory accident and his mom ran away, so he basically was an orphan.  He dropped out of school in fifth grade and started working.  But he never gave up and ended up enrolling in the navy and started working with RADARs.  One day he noticed that the RADAR waves melted a peanut he was eating, which turned out to be microwaves.

It was a lot of stories like this.  It’s not only heartwarming, but inspiring.

Q:  What did you find ultimately separated those who succeeded in the face of adversity from those who succumbed to it?

A:  You can really break it down to two components. One is internal - how you see the world, and the second is external or how you interact with the world.  One of the main components of an internal approach is called the “limelight” effect.  Where do you put the psychological limelight?  Do you put it on yourself or on others?  People who put the limelight on themselves take responsibility for their actions?  They ask themselves, ‘What do I want to do with the cards life has dealt me?’  People who have an external limelight - they’re not able to get over stuff because they feel that life is unfair.

People who succeed also seek meaning everywhere they find out.  They find singing meaningful or going on hikes in nature.  Every single opportunity they have to extract meaning out of something, they do so.  And they just don’t give up.  They don’t judge their lives by failures.  People may have said they should quit, but they keep going.

Q:  And the external approaches?

A:  A main component is how you interact with others.  People who succeed, they usually have an easy temperament, and they don’t take things so seriously.  Like when I was talking to the Iraq war veteran who lost his arm, he took it so well and said, “Well it’s just an arm.”  It’s also important to have a good sense of humor.  Being able to laugh at yourself and laugh at the things that are happening to you.  Laughter reduces anxiety and relaxes you, and it connects you with other people.

And most important of all, you need to have a satellite figure – some person that’s always there for you.  You don’t have to communicate with them on a daily or weekly basis, but just know that they’re there for you, no matter what.  The best figures are the ones that respect you and challenge you at the same time.  They can be your best friend and your harshest critic.

Q:  What are some tools people can use in their daily lives to better their chances for success?

A:  There are good things to do even if adversity hasn’t struck you.  Internalize responsibility – whenever something happens, instead of looking at luck or other people to blame, look at yourself and how you can interact with all of this.  If you’re running late for a meeting, don’t blame the traffic light for making you late.  Instead maybe leave earlier next time.

Engage in meaning, really value it.  Even if it’s a silly movie you like to watch - watch that movie.  Dance, sing, engage with friends.  The little things matter in life, and the meaning you seek in little things will make a huge difference when adversity hits.  Being hurt and being maimed doesn’t transform your personality, but exaggerates it.

And most of all, don’t judge your progress by failure, and even more simply, just don’t give up.