This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
You know how when life doesn’t go according to plan and it seems as though you’ll never, ever bounce back from your mistakes? Good news: Running into a few mishaps and false starts along the way may actually help you in the long run.
“What are often called mistakes are actually an integral step in the learning process — if you learn from them,” explains Katherine L. Ziegler, Ph.D., a psychologist, life coach, and founder of Self Aware Life in Oakland, California. “Take riding a bicycle. If you lean too far to the left or right and start wobbling, your brain and your muscles learn to straighten up. This course correction happens over and over again, becoming ever more natural and seamless. It’s the same with goals; we can learn from the actual results of our early choices and draw accurate conclusions that guide our next choices.”
Still, to succeed in your next attempts, there are some things you do need to nail from the get-go, like what your goals actually are. According to Ziegler, when you discover what you truly want, it helps you to adjust your goals accordingly. “This shortens the time it takes to check your plans against reality, and minimizes any compulsions to do it the hard way — actually pursuing the career or the guy, only to find the resulting experiences are not what you wanted at all,” she says. In other words, if you’re still stuck in dead-end strategies, then that’s exactly where you are going to end up: at a dead end.
Rebounding from failure isn’t easy, but it’s worth looking at whether you’ve truly failed — or if you’ve merely failed to live up to someone else’s definition of success. Ziegler says that it’s only natural for us to choose a job, career, or relationship early in our lives because someone close to us thought it was cool, or right, or the best option for us. Unfortunately, these goals don’t take into account our uniqueness. “There is actually no such thing as a job — or a place to live, a life partner, a lifestyle, a time in your life to get married or do anything else — that is the only right way for everybody,” she adds.
Once you’re ready to define success on your own terms, you just need to set goals, right? Not so fast.Vaguely-defined goals could actually be setting you up for failure. According to Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking, imprecise long-term goals — like getting in shape, getting a promotion, or making more money — are stated too generally to actually be carried out successfully. “In order to achieve those goals, you have to turn them into a more specific plan involving short-term actions that can be carried out on a daily basis that will put you on the road toward your goal,” he says.
As for failed relationships, shifting your perspective can set you up for a happier relationship down the line — with yourself or with someone else. “Many women whose relationships or marriages end think their lives are over: ‘Where will I go if they don’t want me?’ Or if they’re not married yet and several of their friends are, they wonder what’s wrong with them,” says Ziegler. “When we explore these situations, though, we find it makes a lot of sense not to stay with the particular people who are available to them at that point in their lives. I could fill a book with women whose lives are now treasures of delight, adventure, and creative healing, whose stories all start with ‘I was dumped’ or ‘It never worked out.’”
Your new mantra: C’est la vie. While being an unhappy single while everyone else is happily hooked up can seem like the worst thing in the world, according to Markman, it’s even worse to be in a committed relationship with someone you should have broken up with, especially if marriage or kids are involved. So, put down the Kleenex and shut off the romcom. “The more you spend some time with people who like the things you do, the more opportunities there are both to broaden your horizons and to meet someone who also likes you,” says Markman. And remember, being single can be its own reward. If you’re happy and content on your own right now, more power to you.
The bottom line, says Ziegler, is to ask yourself where are your standards coming from. We highly doubt that everyone else is perfectly content with their jobs, their apartment, their relationships, no matter how together they may seem. And, look at mistakes as an opportunity to know yourself better. Get real with yourself and ask if that job (or partner, or apartment) was right for you.
“When you find your own unique life path, you will be happier than you ever were. Finding that path is itself part of the journey,” Ziegler says. And, as the adage goes, even the longest journey begins with a single step — so, keep walking, even after you stumble.
Illustrated by Zhang Qingyun
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