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The idea that failure is always a valuable teacher might need a rethink.

A recent study suggests that people often overestimate the likelihood of success following a failure, which could make us less inclined to assist those who are struggling.

Researchers from Northwestern, Cornell, Yale, and Columbia universities analyzed data from various online surveys, including over 1,800 adults in the U.S. They explored how people predicted the resilience of professionals such as lawyers, teachers, nurses, and even those dealing with substance use disorders and heart problems.

“We wanted to see if people think about resilience wrong,” said lead author Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University.

The study, published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people often believe others who have experienced setbacks will grow from their failures on their own. This belief can reduce the motivation to help those in need, assuming these issues will “self-correct.”

Dentists and orthodontists may find this particularly relevant. Running a small practice comes with unique challenges, and setbacks can be daunting. The study’s findings suggest that while it’s common to assume that failing will naturally lead to learning and improvement, this isn’t always the case. We can learn from our failures, but it’s essential not to assume that others will naturally do the same.

Participants in the study mistakenly believed that people focus on their mistakes and learn from them after a failure. In reality, failure can be demotivating and threaten one’s ego, making it harder to learn from the experience.

For dental professionals, this means recognizing that simply retrying after a setback isn’t enough to ensure a different outcome. Instead, consider these strategies after a setback:

First, assess what went wrong and explore new approaches to prevent repeat failures.

Second, engage your support network. Utilize professional networks, mentorship, and continued education to bolster your chances of success.

Third, be patient and mindful. This can be very difficult for most entrepreneurs. It is our nature to want to jump in and solve problems. You’ve probably got a few problems sitting and waiting for you in the office on Monday morning. Before jumping into problem-solving mode, go back and read Volume 10, Issue 17 of The Burleson Report. Consider the advice on changing the lens and accurately defining the problem first.

Remember, this is all about reps. As my brother used to say, “The sun shines on every dog’s ass every now and then.” In other words, anyone can achieve success from time to time. Consistently hitting high marks, however, requires you to tolerate discomfort and thoughtfully analyzing past mistakes to grow from them. I can say from painful experience, you must eventually accept that Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way. If you haven’t read these books, get them and dig in. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

Ask the Right Questions

Dr. Ryan Sultan, director of the Mental Health Informatics Lab at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, emphasizes the importance of asking critical questions after a failure to understand what contributed to it. This reflective approach can help you grow and learn from your experiences.

Dr. Lama Bazzi, a psychiatrist in private practice, advocates for patience and mindful approaches to overcoming challenges. “In order to change course, you must feel uncomfortable, analyze where you went wrong, and make a conscious effort to approach similar future challenges mindfully and differently,” Bazzi advises.

While the study focused on various populations in the U.S., including students, professionals, and medical patients, it highlights the need for more research to understand how different cultures perceive and react to failure. For now, dentists and orthodontists can benefit from a more critical and supportive approach to overcoming setbacks, ensuring they have the resources and strategies needed to turn failures into future successes. The next time you’re ready to soberly assess a setback, ask these questions:

Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties show my character?

This process, as shared by Ryan Holiday, is akin to what Julia Cameron calls “spiritual windshield wipers.” It’s a good way to face the challenge with clearer eyes and probably the most cost-effective therapy ever invented.

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