The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

Dealing with Disappointment 

I am interested in observing how people react when they miss out on something they want.  

I see this every day in the canteen when, for example, the last of the  cheesymite  scrolls gets taken and someone still waiting in line groans because they had their eye on that item. It is the same thing when an umpiring decision goes against one of our players, or a boy misses out on selection in the Athletics team or, on a larger scale, when someone else gets chosen for a leadership position or a part in a play or musical.   

Sometimes, we do not achieve the things we have our hearts set on, that we have worked towards for years. Helping young people to cope with disappointment is a crucial part of us preparing them for life beyond school. When the opportunity arises to discuss this with boys, I try to follow these steps:  

1. We have a choice  

The first thing I say to them is that we have a choice as to how we respond to setbacks. We can be angry and upset and look to blame others, or we can draw lessons from the experience and move on with our lives. This is a hard thing to do. But, ultimately, everyone benefits from adopting such an attitude. Viktor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz death camp and he observed that the people who, in general, survived were those who made the choice to survive, and who chose to find hope where there seemed to be  none at all . I put it to the boys that they can be bitter or better – bitter about the decision, or better because they hold their head up, learn from the experience and get on with making a difference. They are in control of that, if nothing else. There is always something to be learned, if we are willing to put our pride to one side.   

2. Reinforce the Good  

Just because we did not get the desired result, does not mean we lack value. Reminding the boys that they have many qualities and talents which are to be valued – and telling them what these are – is an important step. Even when we try and fail, we have still come a long way from the person we were when we first set out. Even though we were not able to reach the position we desired, we can still make a significant contribution by using our strengths to benefit others.   

3. Provide Perspective  

Perhaps the most difficult thing to face up to is that, sometimes, we are not the best person for a position. This is where our dreams and reality collide. This may be a lesson in self-awareness; sometimes, the way others see us is different from how we see ourselves; sometimes, we over-estimate our ability. It can sometimes help to look at the bigger picture. My grandmother used to say, "It's not the end of the world." She was right – it never was the end of the world. My grandfather used to say, "Worse things happen at sea." I was never sure what he meant, but he, too, was most likely correct.  

4. Find the Silver Lining  

Quite often, not getting what we want is  actually a  good thing. It may make us work  harder, or  re-evaluate what we want in life. The most successful people have often had to deal with hardship or disappointment before making it. The story of J.K. Rowling is just one of many that can be used to illustrate this. Her first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers (and before she even wrote the book, she suffered a stream of potentially devastating personal failures). It may mean that we re-commit to that same  goal, but  resolve to use a different method to get there. Or it sets us off on a pathway we didn't  realise  was open to us, one which ends up being far more suitable. One thing I  emphasise  is that each boy still has a contribution to make if he wishes to do so – it comes back to choosing to make a difference.       

5. Set the Example  

If we  catastrophise  the situation, focus on how things seem to be unfair, then it is more than likely that our boys will adopt the same view towards this and future episodes of disappointment. The longer we dwell on it, the bigger the impact on them. The decision will not change. If we talk to them about adopting a positive mind-frame, one which encourages optimistic thinking and a willingness to look for the positives, this will help to change the way our boys see the world. We ourselves can set an example in this regard as well.   

Teaching young people to deal with adversity is one of the most important things schools and parents do. How people handle disappointment is a test of character. Failure and adversity are two of life's great teachers. I try to teach our boys not to be afraid or embarrassed of making mistakes or of falling short of their target; if we fail in this, we may rob them of the opportunity to become truly remarkable young men.