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Leadership

Three Common Reactions To Failure That Don't Help Matters—And One That Does

There are some patterns in the ways we react to changing course. Startup founders in mid-pivot make for great case studies.

Three Common Reactions To Failure That Don't Help Matters—And One That Does
[Photos: Flickr user Eugene Flores; naturepicsonline and Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons]

Nobody likes having to change directions, backtrack, or start over from scratch—especially when they're working on something big, challenging, or that they're passionate about. But life is full of situations that make us change course unexpectedly, and our success often depends on how we face them.

Few people know this better than entrepreneurs. As our friend Chris Calvosa has said, an entrepreneur is someone who dives into an empty swimming pool betting that it's going to rain. It usually doesn’t. Entrepreneurship is a journey full of failures followed by re-imaginings: the pivot. In order to pivot successfully, you need to maintain emotional momentum—it's never just a business formula.

The tricky thing is, the most common human responses tend to make us lose that momentum. It takes a particular kind of mental frame in order to keep it up while everything is changing. Here's a look at three of them that throw us off, and one that doesn't.

The Four Common Reactions To Startup Pivots

In our time working as mentors at StartX, Stanford’s innovation accelerator, we discovered there are four typical emotional responses to the pivot. These are the three that aren't so helpful:

1. The Godzilla response. When faced with failure, "Godzillas" roar and breathe fire and destroy Tokyo (or New York—pick your mid-century pop poison). Among entrepreneurs, Godzillas want to throw out everything and start from scratch. They lose their emotional momentum by focusing like a laser on what didn't work. Anger drives them to erase the whiteboard, slam the door, and storm out of the office.

2. The hummingbird response. Before anyone can even utter the word "pivot," the hummingbird changes direction and is off. "What’s over here? What’s over there? Is that nectar?" While this may seem like maintaining momentum, it's actually pointless acceleration. Many of us do this when we realize something isn't going according to plan; we waste energy by making ourselves busy but not focusing. And for startup heads, fear drives them to pick up a pen and fill the whiteboard with 10 or 20 new ideas as quickly as possible.

3. The deer in the headlights response. Maybe you're worrying that by pivoting your nascent startup, you'll have to abandon the handful of customers or the few employees you've already brought. Deeper down, maybe you worry you'll never have another great idea. Those of us who become deer in headlights immediately freeze when faced with having to change and lose all momentum. We go quiet, sit at our desks, and fret.

These three represent the classic stress responses you've undoubtedly heard of before: fight, flight, and freeze. In all three cases, fear of failure activates the sympathetic nervous system. Godzillas respond to that activation with anger; hummingbirds and deer react with fear. It’s that fear and anger that destroy our emotional momentum.

What's more, they share the same root cause, which is known to psychologists as the "character response," which is pretty much what it sounds like. It's when you attribute your missteps to something innate within you—to a character flaw. The need to start over confirms that fear you may have always nurtured in private, and now everybody knows it. And while it causes us to react differently, it's a universally devastating experience.

The Better Way To Face Down Failure

But there is a fourth response available to us, and it's one shared by some of the most visionary entrepreneurs. We think of it as the "phoenix response."

The phoenix is the mythical bird that burns in a fire only to be reborn from its own ashes. It lives through this cycle over and over again—like an entrepreneur moving through pivots or anybody, for that matter, who's forced to repeatedly change direction through trial and error.

The phoenix knows two very important things: First, it knows that it will face the fire and burn. And second, it knows it will re-emerge unscathed. Rather than fear the scorching or get angry, this type of person knows that sudden reversals and frustrations are simply part of the process of transformation—leading to their own renewal.

Godzillas sweep away the ashes, learning nothing from what came before. Hummingbirds attempt to flit through the fire as fast as possible in denial, skirting any opportunity for it to transform them. Deer refuse to go anywhere near the blaze. But the phoenix expects to encounter failure and isn't afraid of being touched by it. Rather than a character judgment, the fire is a gift, a chance to try again.

So how do you get a handle on this mind-set and maintain your emotional momentum in the throes of unexpected change? Here are a few tips that may sound small but can really help.

1. Go get a hug—yes, really. When we're feeling intense pressure and our sympathetic nervous system is in high gear, a dose of human contact can set us to rights. Hugs release oxytocin, the neuropeptide that quiets the stress response and put us into a state of calm. With the oxytocin from a hug, we feel connected, calm, and supported.

2. Make a list of the five things you’re most grateful for. From being alive to having ice cream—it doesn't matter, there are no right or wrong answers. Gratitude releases acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that helps turn our stress response off. When we’re grateful, we’re not angry or afraid.

3. Yawn. Yes, it sounds about as trivial as getting a hug, but your neurochemistry is what it is. Yawning activates the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxes the body. This is why you’ll often see athletes yawn before a competition.

The first four of the first-stage booster rockets that SpaceX attempted to land back on Earth exploded in fireballs. Each time, Elon Musk and his company rose from the fire to try again. And on the fifth attempt, the reusable rocket landed successfully. It’s named the Falcon—but it might as well be called the Phoenix.

Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth, and Judah Pollack is the coauthor of The Chaos Imperative.

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