As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” In fact, there is more to this adage than just being a nice sentence to put on a refrigerator magnet – so let’s break it down:
1. Accept that you, in fact, are dealing with a lemon.
Failure is unpleasant. According to business journalist Megan McArdle, people sometimes slip into a state of denial by expecting things to go on the way they always have. Another common reaction is “loss aversion” by clinging on to the metaphorical lemon (which could be a failing business) despite it no longer serving you. Hence, make sure to examine your lemon closely. Taste it to convince yourself that it is, in fact, very sour. As McArdle makes clear, you won’t be able to turn things around if you don’t see failure for what it is.
2. Assemble the necessary ingredients
Failure alone won’t automatically lead to success. You will need additional ingredients and tools to make lemonade. First, you will need a bowl – a metaphor for “mindset.” As Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck explains, people with a “growth mindset” are open to change and expect the future to be full of new opportunities to explore. To adopt such a mindset, you must drop your fixation on results and instead start taking pleasure in the process of tackling a challenge.
So now, go out and buy some sugar and ice!
3. Figure out the “how”
But wait…how do you actually “make” lemonade? If you were lucky enough to have had teachers who encouraged you to experiment rather than just telling you what to do, rolling up your sleeves and starting to get creative might feel like second nature to you. Your first attempt might fall short of your high expectations. Perhaps the lemonade turns out too sweet or too sour. Learning specialist Manu Kaper calls this “productive failure” – making mistakes that are critical to learning and doing better the next time. You may consult some books, or experts, or you might try to add a few special ingredients.
And before you know it, you are mixing up the best lemonade there is. Kaper calls this “productive success” – you take advantage of all the resources you have to improve your performance. And the whole exercise would have been only half the fun if somebody had lectured you on the “right” way to make lemonade. To learn from failure, Kaper advises, you must look at knowledge as a “conceptual toy” that you can play and tinker with as you go through the learning curve.
4. Sip your lemonade and contemplate
In her book, Megan McArdle cites a study where researchers asked respondents about the best thing that has ever happened in their lives. Quite surprisingly, many people cited events that looked like a lemon at the time, such as a divorce or business failure. Failure can be a forceful instigator of change. And by tackling your failures in an intelligent way and with the right mindset, you can surely make that change a positive one.