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The importance of failure in building mental health: a conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt (part 2 / 6)

Published on March, 30th 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt that aired on March 8th, 2018. You can listen to the interview here: As Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell, Bill is an internationally recognized expert in mental health who has spent 25 years helping employees, patients and leaders achieve their potential. Bill has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, did post-doctoral training at UCLA, has developed programs with organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the University of New Brunswick, and is author of numerous books and articles, including regular contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Dr. Greg Wells: Bill, you had an experience in university that changed your perception of failure. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Bill Howatt: I was lucky enough to have a mentor in university who taught me how to drive my own bus — to understand I could make decisions for myself and wasn’t dependent on what other people thought. I started making my own choices and seeing that while I would have some failures, I would also begin to build resiliency. It’s a version of what Edison meant when he said that the only way you are going to succeed is by trying. Mastery grows out of failure.

Because I played sports, I was able to relate to the idea of failure. I knew what it was like to be cut from a team and then work hard to make it next time. And I knew what it meant to work hard because I was never the most gifted athlete. So, I was able to apply these ideas in coping with my ADHD and dyslexia. I learned how to harness the ADHD and see it as the biggest gift I have. People think ADHD means you can’t focus. Actually, when you do something you are passionate about, you are hyper-focused. I just started to work at the things I wanted to conquer. Like writing. I would write and write until I wore the dyslexia out.

GW: Can you talk a bit more about failure as part of learning? I think that idea can really help people change the trajectory of their lives.

BH: As a kid learning to ride a bike, I wasn’t the one who could do it right away. I kept falling off. But I kept getting back on it and living with the scrapes and bruises as I got a little bit better at it each time. Why did I keep at it? Because I was really clear that having that bike meant freedom. It meant that I could go see my friends. I didn’t have to walk. So I had a really strong purpose that put the failure into perspective. But the failure was necessary for the learning.

Most of us think that when we lock into something we really, really want, we are going to be able to do it the first time, that it will be easy. No one can do anything 100% right the first time. We are all going to make mistakes. I think we are better off putting failure into our plans — knowing in advance that we are going to have setbacks. Accounting for them. From there, we can think of every failure as an opportunity for profound learning. It’s super unrealistic to believe that you’re not going to fail in life. We’re going to make mistakes. That’s just part of the process.

GW: Recently, in the schools I work with, I have been pushing the idea of a “failure project.” Everyone’s so afraid to fail right now, it’s just paralyzing for people. Why not pick something you have no chance whatsoever of achieving, but that you’re interested in. Go for it. All out. Try your very, very best to reach that next to impossible thing and celebrate when you fail. It’s amazing how that approach liberates people. They either end up achieving it or they learn so much that it sets the stage for future success.

I’ve failed more times in my life than I can count. Epic, huge failures. I actually think that the vast majority of successes we achieve in life follow those massive failure moments. They are inflection points. I’d love to get your take on what happens after people face a massive failure — the different trajectories that a life can take from there.

BH: There is an interesting new line of research around post-traumatic stress that focuses on post-traumatic growth. Following a significant event, people can get to the point where they are able to manage challenges that would previously have had a negative impact on them. They can grow and evolve from the incident.

I did my post-doc at the UCLA School of Medicine, and I specialized in addictive disorders. When I was on the road speaking, I would go to open AA meetings. It was an opportunity to see living examples of post-traumatic growth in people who had often lost everything due to an addiction or substance dependency. They were able to come through it, use the program, transform their life and then turn around and help other people. They were so much stronger and resilient as a result of coming through a really challenging phase of their life.

GW: By accepting the positive role that their failures could contribute, they were able to advance the state of their mental health.

BH: Right.