As a 10 year old, I was barely taller than a washing machine and I weighed less than half as much. But I was fast, so I played on a competitive soccer team. Or, more accurately, I played when the bigger, stronger, more skilled kids needed a breather. Why didn’t I get more playing time? Obviously, my coach just didn’t like me, I told myself. I couldn’t even convincingly lie to myself. Even before my mom gently pointed it out, I knew I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to because I wasn’t as good and didn’t practice as much as the best kids on the team. It had nothing to do with my coach, and everything to do with me. Ouch. But realizing it was my fault made me practice more. As a result, I got better and I played more.
Part of developing the mindset that’s crucial for success is learning to internalize rather than externalize. How many successful people do you know that blame every one of their failures on someone or something else? None. Why? Because it’s impossible to become good at anything by doing so.
Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. But this is only true if you take the time to learn from your mistakes, which is impossible if you externalize by blaming someone else. What lesson can you learn if you know that the only reason you don’t get to play more is because your coach doesn’t like you? Why would you ever work to improve your skills if you really believed that? You wouldn’t. You’d think your coach was an asshole and then eventually you’d quit.
Internalizing is difficult. It stings to admit that you alone are the reason something failed, and to examine what you could have done differently. It’s much easier to blame.
As a newly admitted attorney, one of the first papers I ever filed with the court was rejected by the clerk. Why? BECAUSE THE CLERK WAS A COMPLETE IDIOT! I did everything right! Okay, the facts of the case made the papers a little complicated, but they complied with every rule. Nothing was technically wrong. So what did I do? I blamed the clerk, of course! But then I paused. Getting pissed off at the clerk isn’t going to solve anything. Instead, I focused on what I did. After all, the only way I could gain anything from the experience was by examining what I had control over and internalizing it. So I thought about it. I could have called the clerk to ask what she wanted the papers to look like before I submitted them. I could have included a cover letter, explaining the complicated facts. I could have done more to avoid the result I got.
Notice that I’m not castigating myself, I’m not judging, I’m not saying I’m a horrible human being or that I’m lazy. But I am focusing on what I could have done. I’m turning the experience into something I did (or didn’t do) rather than something that someone did to me.
Forming this habit of internalizing experiences is a painful, ongoing process. It’s always tempting to blame others. But habitually internalizing is crucial to success in any field. There’s simply no way to become skilled at anything without failing, and there’s no way to learn from failure without accepting that the failure was a result of my actions, examining what I could have done differently, and trying something different next time.