Failure can be a great motivator, as the folks at Dick’s Sporting Goods know.
Back in 2012 they put out a great commercial titled Untouchable. It starts with images of four high school athletes who just lost the big game. An unseen speaker, presumably a coach, gives this speech:
It’s tough to come this far and lose.
But you are defined in life by the way you respond to defeat.
That pit in your stomach, fill it with fire.
Next season, starts right now.
Remember this hurt.
Think about it when you want to sleep in in the morning.
Think about it when you want to shut it down, instead of doing an extra set.
Promise yourself, that you will never, ever feel like this again.
You promise yourself, that you will come back untouchable.
As these words are said, we see images of each kid’s off-season training regimen. The soccer player tapes the newspaper headline “Westfield Comes Up Short” to her bedroom mirror. The track kid runs by a swimming pool where his friends are hanging out. The football player builds his strength while working construction. The basketball player does dips in the restaurant kitchen where he’s working. Then we see the training scenes from the gym, court, and field.
The next season, they “come back untouchable,” and win.
It’s a great commercial. I used to watch it to get motivated for my next professional goal.
Lawyer or not, we all deal with career losses. Maybe the jury went against you. Maybe you got fired. Or maybe you just didn’t get that promotion you were hoping for. Whatever the setback, you can use that experience as fuel to fire your motivation.
You often hear this kind of message from professional athletes, when they talk about how the “haters” and doubters motivated them to work even harder to succeed.
But why do they need this kind of motivation? I mean, they’re professionals. Isn’t it just part of the job to put in the training you need to succeed? And you could say the same for any profession.
It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a more senior lawyer. I asked for advice on how to deal with the inevitable situations where you don’t perform at your best. In other words, how do you deal with the fact that you can’t always “bring your A-game”? The response: you have to do a cost-benefit analysis looking at the cost of not giving your best versus the benefit of doing so.
That was great advice. For a robot.
For human beings, not so much.
The problem is that consistent excellence requires discipline, and discipline is hard. We’re just not wired to do things we don’t like for long periods of time with no apparent short-term benefit. We need some kind of emotional motivation. Intellectual motivation—merely reasoning “if I consistently stick to my weightlifting regimen this summer I will be a better tackler in the fall”—is not going to cut it.
Waking up every day to the headline “Westfield Comes Up Short,” on the other hand, may get the fires burning.
So I used to watch that Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial and think, “yeah, I’m going to work even harder after this setback and come back UNTOUCHABLE! AAARGGH!”
Ok, I did not actually grunt. But I did like to think that way.
Then a funny thing happened. I noticed that concentrating on painful losses made me feel kind of, I don’t know, crappy (that’s a clinical term). Feeling angry, resentful, or frustrated did not seem to help me work harder or smarter. In fact, I noticed that a negative mental state tended to make my job performance worse.
I know, it sounds crazy. But bear with me. Because my theory recently received support from a highly regarded authority in industrial psychology: late-night talk show hosts.
You may have heard about a brouhaha between Bill Maher and James Corden. It started with Maher, ever the contrarian, saying that “fat-shaming” needs to make a comeback. You can watch his segment here.
There was a certain cruel logic to Maher’s argument: if we make it ok to make fun of fat kids again, maybe it will motivate them to lose weight.
Sound familiar? That pit in your stomach, overweight kid, fill it with fire. Slim down and come back untouchable!
But James Corden was not having it. Corden, no stranger to struggles with weight, offered a funny and incisive rebuttal you can view here.
Corden’s most insightful point was that bullying people about their weight is not actually effective:
Bill, I sincerely believe that what you think you’re offering here is tough love, and you’re just trying to help by not sugar-coating reality for fat people, even though you know how much fat people love sugar-coating things.
But the truth is you’re working against your own cause.
It’s proven that fat-shaming only does one thing.
It makes people feel ashamed.
And shame leads to depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior.
Self-destructive behavior like over-eating.
Sure, Maher had some valid points in his critique of American obesity, but Corden’s response rings true. Feeling bad about yourself is not an effective weight-loss strategy. And we should not expect that dwelling on past defeats would be any more effective as a career development strategy.
Yet the professional athlete paradigm still has a certain gravitational pull. There’s a reason the Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial is effective. We love the stories of professional athletes grinding away in the off-season to prove the haters wrong.
That brings me to the New Orleans Saints. When their star quarterback Drew Brees went down during the 2019 season, the next man up was a guy named Teddy Bridgewater. Serious NFL fans remember he was a first-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings. But things did not go as planned. He tore his ACL in practice, missing most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
When Bridgewater finally made his return in the fourth quarter of a 2017 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He then made two pass attempts and threw an interception. His experience reminds us that, train as we might, we never really become “untouchable.” We all remain vulnerable.
But Bridgewater did not give up. He eventually found himself a backup on the Saints roster. When Brees injured his thumb, Bridgewater stepped in and had his big comeback in week 2 of the 2019 season, leading the Saints to an emotional 33-27 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
You can see where this is heading. Cue the interview footage of Bridgewater talking about how he was determined to prove all the doubters wrong while he slowly rehabbed that ACL injury, right?
But that’s not what Bridgewater said. I first saw his reaction in this tweet from jazz saxophonist and New Orleans native Branford Marsalis:
“Thinking about all the ones who believed in me.” Wow. Now that’s motivation.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.