“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
We’ve all said this to ourselves at some point. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want and we don’t know why. Perhaps a job or a relationship ends out of the blue. Or a piece of work isn’t as well-received as you hoped it would be. Or you just can’t get your in-laws to like you even though you’ve been on your most charming behaviour.
In life, the criteria for success are rarely made clear. And even when you start to figure them out, it feels like they change. And so, at the end of your wits, you throw your hands up and say “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong”.
Your frustration is completely natural of course, but the question is, what do you do next? In my experience, one of three things happens:
1. You carry on doing the same thing.
The most common reaction to not knowing where we’re going wrong is to keep doing the same thing, even though the one thing we know for sure about it is that it’s wrong. A wonderful example of this tendency in action is the Wason Rule Discovery Test, also known as the 2–4–6 test.
The basic premise is simple. Participants are given a simple number sequence (2, 4, 6…), and asked to discover the rule that generates the sequence. Of course, they were quickly able to think of a rule which fit the sequence, but when they were told their rule was what the tester had in mind, they ran into a problem. (A slightly different version of the experiment can be found in the video below, see if you fare any better than these random members of the public.)
Rather than trying to find new solutions once they were told that their initial theory was wrong, participants would simply continue to suggest different versions of the same theory. Until they were prompted to do so, none of them even considered proposing a theory which went against their intuitions.
This flaw in our problem-solving abilities isn’t limited to number sequences. Faced with a problem like setting up a new business, finding the partner of our dreams, or developing anew skill, most of us will quickly arrive at a strategy for success, and stick blindly to it, even if it fails to bring us the results we’re hoping for. Of course, there are situations where it’s necessary to just keep chipping away until we succeed, but these situations are much rarer than they seem.
Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Instead, you’re better off thinking about how you can tweak your approach. Perhaps even doing something that seems counterintuitive. If your advertising strategy is failing to connect with customers, try doing something completely different and seeing how results compare.
If you believe that you need to hide certain aspects of your personality to get your date to like you, try getting hit out in the open right from the start. If you feel like you’re getting nowhere learning classical piano, see what happens if you spend some time focusing on jazz improvisation instead. Even if this new strategy also fails, at least you’ll begin to develop a picture of which solutions don’t work, which is much more likely to lead you to one that does.
2. Give up.
Hot on the heels of stubborn perseverance as a strategy for dealing with uncertainty is giving up entirely. In fact, I only say that giving up is less likely because most of us at least give problems those few token tries before admitting defeat.
Giving up isn’t always a bad idea. If you’re struggling and you have no idea why, giving up might be the most sensible course of action. Maybe this simply isn’t where your talents lie and maybe it’s not important enough to you to keep doggedly pursuing.
So how do you know when you should cut your losses? Here are some questions to ask yourself before pulling the plug:
Is this the best use of my time? — It’s possible that you’re struggling because you’re simply feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you’re trying to do too much and as a result, everything is suffering.
Ask yourself whether what you’re doing is really the best use of your time. How you calculate that is up to you. Maybe your focus is on making money or developing a skill or just making yourself happy. How well does what you’re doing meet that goal? If you have better options, maybe it’s time to pursue those. I not, why are you dropping this one?
Have I given it a fair shot? — Humans are impatient creatures, and there’s good reason for that, but sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that things take time. Have you been realistic about how long it will take you to achieve your goals? Did you set a realistic timeframe at the start of whatever endeavour your undertaking?
Look at what others have been able to achieve in a certain timeframe, but don’t just focus on the people who made it to the top overnight. Consider that for every overnight success there are hundreds, probably thousands who had to wait a lot longer before they made it.
Will I regret quitting? — Most things in life work through accumulated effort. What I mean by this is that if you want to become a concert pianist, you need to practice every day. To begin with, you’ll suck. But with each hour of practice, you’ll get better. Until eventually you’ll be able to play “Chopsticks” without even needing to look at your hands.
The flip side of this is that if you decide to quit, your skills will start to decline, and if you change your mind about quitting, you’ll have to redo some or all of that hard work, to get back to where you were.
This is basically a question of evaluating your sunk-costs. Are you willing to throw away the effort you’ve made until now? If you change your mind in the future, how will you feel about starting again, possibly from scratch? Will you have time to start again and reach the level you’re at now?
There’s no right answer to these questions, but they’re worth thinking about carefully before you choose to give up on something. That said, there’s no shame in giving up when something isn’t working unless giving up becomes a habit.
3. You carry out a careful and detailed analysis of all the factors, including a careful examination of your own behaviour, which leads to meaningful change.
Last, and most definitely least in terms of how often this happens, is self-examination and behavioural change.
This option requires the most effort, is the most uncomfortable and challenging, and is the one you’re probably rolling your eyes at right now. Probably the whole reason you’re reading this is that you were hoping to find a way to avoid doing this exact thing, or at least to find someone who’d tell you it isn’t necessary. But self-examination is the most valuable and really the only sustainable strategy for success.
This option minimises the effect of bad luck, teaches you about your strengths and weaknesses, and develops the ability to be resilient when things don’t go as planned; which will be frequently.
If you’re trying to do something and it isn’t working out, there are really only two possibilities; you’re doing something wrong, or there’s something wrong with the thing you’re trying to do. For example, if you’re trying to find the man/woman/other of your dreams, but never get any second dates, either there’s something wrong with the people you’re dating, or there’s something wrong with you.
The possibility that you aren’t meeting the right people shouldn’t be rejected of course, a little of the dogged persistence from option 1 will settle that one way or the other. But after a while, you have to seriously consider the possibility that you’re the problem.
Not knowing where you’re going wrong is nothing to be surprised about. It’s an inevitable result of the fact that we’re always working off incomplete information. But when you find yourself in that position, try not to see your uncertainty as an endpoint. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But most importantly, try something a little different.