The Three S’s (See, Surround, Set) to Overcoming Failure

SEE: See mistakes as learning opportunities and see yourself not as a victim

One of my former college students shared this: “I have always seen every mistake I make as a learning opportunity in my life which provides me with less stress over the situation as well as allows my future choices to be based on more information, and gives me more options for my ultimate success.”

I think this is such a great approach to life! Some people live their lives with regret. They always look back and wonder what if they had done it differently and always ask “what if?” This student’s attitude, instead, is to learn from the mistakes she’s made and use those as teaching tools to help guide her future decision-making. I love that! Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t change our past, but we can decide what our future will be like by the choices we make today!

SURROUND: Surround yourself with positive people, positive thoughts, and positive things

Another former student shared, “Life is not easy, but a positive attitude, healthy mind and body can help all of us overcome anything.” This is spot on! At one time or another we have all had negative thoughts or felt hopeless because of the curve balls life throws at us. I think the times when I have truly “failed” were those in which I gave up mentally and told myself ok I can’t do this. From those life lessons, I learned to continually surround myself with positive people (like people who lift others up), to think positive thoughts (like being grateful), and do positive things (like being kind or helping others). Individually and collectively these things help to improve my outlook on life and direct me in a positive path toward a brighter future.

SET: Set small, bite-size goals

Early on in my academic studies, I set myself up to fail by having generic long-term goals (e.g., when I finish my Master’s I’m going to buy a new car). Success was never within reach and failure was almost always a certainty because I neglected to do what I call the daily grunt work (things like studying for my tests or doing my homework or making sure that I worked on my final paper). Because I didn’t do the “smaller” things consistently (i.e. work hard each day or each week), I spent an extra year to year-and-a-half in my Master’s program. Ouch! Painful life lesson learned the hard way!

For my PhD program, I was very mindful that, in addition to setting BIG goals (like getting my PhD), I also set SMALLER goals (the steps I need to reach my BIG goal), and I would break the smaller goals into even smaller ones (I call them “bite-size goals” – tiny, incremental steps needed to reach my small goal and eventually my BIG goal). That way, each time I reached one of these bite-size goals, I would pat myself on the back for a job well done. These tiny, gradual steps helped me stay focus and kept me on track all the way until I finished my program and completed my dissertation and defense.

So does this mean that I will never fail again? Heck no! In fact, I plan on failing. I expect to fail because I’m human. But the next time I fail, I will use the three S’s (See, Surround, Set) to help me overcome my failure and press on.

Takeaway: Failure is not fatal and it’s never final. Everybody fails. It’s just part of living a human life. The key is to get back up! Own your mistakes and learn from them so you don’t repeat them over and over. Surround yourself with positive people, think positive thoughts, and do positive things. Finally, set small, bite-size goals. Remember, you can’t change your past, but you can determine what your future will look like by the choices and actions you make today!

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor