Why is Disappointment so … Disappointing?

Out of these two examples, which do you think would be the more disappointing for most of us to hear?

  • After a tough training session, there is a test.  The trainer then comes over and quietly tells you that you have missed the passmark.
  • You go for a job interview.  There is a pre-employability test or assessment (‘PET’) which you do not pass.  HR take you to one side and inform you that your application is not going to be progressed.  

Based on my experience, if you said the second one then you were right.    

simon cowell
Simon knows all about disappointment!

It’s fair to say that being told at an early stage that you are no longer a candidate for a role that you really wanted is usually more disappointing than failing a test at a much later stage in your employment.  Why? Well, normally, you can sit the test again, but you cannot necessarily do the PET all over again so it feels more final.  As though the door really has closed. As I type this, I have visions of “X Factor” contestants in tears in the early stages of the show when Simon tells them he’s not taking them forward.  The disappointment is the same, just perhaps at a more intense level.

This is a good example of how disappointment is not that straightforward.  There are different levels and they usually relate to the importance upon which we place on the things we are being denied.  Our feelings can range from anger or jealousy (“Why did he get the job? It should have been me!”); through to extreme sadness if we are denied something and take it personally, (“I knew they would say no.  It’s because I’m not pretty/young/clever enough.”).  

Disappointment can also be a reflection of the expectation we felt and which has now been taken from us – as with our PET scenario above.  A sense of total lack or loss of control in relation to the outcome. At its most extreme, we can be left with awful feelings of emptiness and loss which can quickly spiral downwards.  (On a separate note, if anyone reading this is feeling like that for whatever reason, please do speak to someone whether it’s a friend or a trained professional.)

The type of disappointment which which I deal is, thankfully, more manageable though it can still be upsetting and it is easy to forget that its consequences can linger.  If I tell an older learner that they have failed the maths component of a test, this can bring back long buried memories of nasty school maths teachers who made them feel small.   Or perhaps it took all their courage to come and sit the test. Now they have failed it – even if it’s only by one mark – they feel like their effort was for nothing, and it can be hard to pull back after that disappointment.  

Outside of the training room, I am a football coach and sometimes I find myself dealing with quite young children who haven’t made the team.  My own son is eight, and while he is a good footballer – he can run fast and he works hard – he is probably not as naturally gifted as some of his friends.  Would it be fair to say this to him? (Obviously, I haven’t yet!) Is potentially disappointing him, by effectively telling him he will probably never be as good as some of friends, being realistic and saving him from greater disappointment later in life?  Or am I simply writing him off at a ridiculously young age? A quick straw poll of some of my own friends suggests some strong opinions in relation to this one.

Most football fans would agree that David Beckham achieved a stellar career at the highest level without having the same natural ability as some of his teammates and contemporaries.  Beckham worked extremely hard and was clearly very driven. Was this enough by itself? Or did his good looks and obvious marketability simply compensate? And, more interestingly, if the end result was the same in that he became the world’s most famous footballer, did it matter how he achieved that result?  We are told that we need to work hard and this will get us to where we want to be. When we see someone taking what we perceive as a shortcut this usually both angers and disappoints us.

To go back to our earlier “X Factor” analogy, most of us know that the show has less to do with finding another Led Zeppelin or Michael Jackson, than it has putting together a media-friendly ‘crash and burn’ act which will hit the Christmas Number One spot, only to be forgotten by the following summer holidays.   We sit through the the judges discussing the musical merits of acts knowing that on one level it is pure pantomime with Simon cast as the villain. Some of the acts are clearly disappointed to be rejected, particularly if the judges have been harsh. Is this just entertaining television, or should we be more concerned at people people being set up for a public and humiliating disappointment.  How must they feel?  If this is is cruel aren’t we complicit by watching it? Would we subject our colleagues to it? (“I’m sorry, Mary, you’ve just totally failed the course today. Your maths was all over the place, and your spelling sucks. All of your colleagues have passed with much higher marks, so you’re going to have to get your things and go!”)

The perhaps more rational part of us says that a certain amount of disappointment is a given, and adults should know this.  Life by its nature is full of highs and lows, and none of us can be great at everything, every minute of the day. In L&D and teaching we talk a lot about ‘growth mindset’.  Nothing is impossible, and we are bound only by the constraints of our own imaginations. To a large extent I agree with that. I believe we are all capable of doing what we want to do but realism dictates that there have to be some logical parameters.  My son may never play football for Real Madrid – but he’s still very young. If he works hard he may play for a smaller team one day.

The thing is, that the more you explore your chosen topic, the more you yourself start to become aware of your own abilities and areas for development.  The more you know, the more you realise what you don’t know! In L&D we call this conscious incompetence; you are aware of your own gaps and work towards filling them or compensating for them.  You start to realise that learning is by itself a journey, and while disappointment factors along the way – I personally wish I were better at horse riding – getting something wrong or missing out on something isn’t the end.  

The learning by itself and the road to achieving your goal are sometimes the most important aspect of it all.  How many times have we heard sports people who win an Olympic Gold or music artists who achieve a double-platinum album say they almost felt a sense of anti-climax? ‘I’ve got the thing I wanted – where do I go now?Along the learning journey disappointment is inevitable but, viewed as a key performance indicator, it’s a good sign.  It means you are on your way!


Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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