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We all know what frustration feels like. It is a special brand of irritation deep inside us that keeps building as long as things refuse to go our way. Frustration can turn each one of us into an angry machine. The wires inside slowly down, lose their insulation to the point of being stripped bare – and once contact is made, fuses are blown, sparks fly and we’re out of control.

Frustration is one of the main reasons why people who wouldn’t hurt a fly suddenly throw their computer through the office window. Or start hitting the bottle, wreaking havoc on the road or lashing out physically at someone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The damaging effects of frustration appear day after day in every newspaper around the world. They make for breaking news and live broadcasts and keep zillions of YouTube watchers engrossed, muttering to themselves: “Oh my God, what got into that guy to make him do something like that?”

Learning to love frustration

The Wikipedia definition of frustration makes for depressing reading, but there is one little ray of hope in there that sustained my personal conviction that frustration is potentially the biggest driver imaginable for problem solving and innovation. Like it says there, frustration may also propel positive processes via enhanced effort and striving for improvement. Enhanced effort and striving for improvement – now there are a few words I’d paint on the walls of any startup or company that sets out to change the world.

That’s the thing: the nasty effects of frustration have overshadowed the great things that mankind has realised because we have forgotten what reverse frustration can achieve. From inventing the wheel to landing on the moon to introducing sliced bread to designing the iPod – we have frustrated people to thank for virtually everything that has moved us forward to the point where we are now. The endless list of achievements bears witness to the fact that we are capable of using frustration in the best possible way. We just need to be frustrated enough to get there.

Lessons from Apollo 13

How can we convert frustration from an individual irritation into a drive that works for the greater good? I’m not a psychiatrist, but I am a firm believer in the power of resilience. In their theory of self-determination, Ryan and Deci argue that “satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness both fosters immediate well-being and strengthens inner resources contributing to subsequent resilience”. It is the positive flipside of the frustration coin, the source of the enormous brainpower and drive to create what isn’t there but should be.

Speaking of self-determination: during the Apollo 13 mission, things went terribly wrong for the crew on board. It was up to the mission control team of experts in Houston to come up with a do-it-yourself system to keep CO2 levels down as well as find a solution that would get them back to earth. The film dramatisation of this incredible event coined the phrase “Failure is not an option”. In preparation for the movie, scriptwriters Al Reinart and Bill Broyles interviewed flight controller Jerry Bostick to find out what the people in mission control were really like. One of their questions was “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” His answer was: “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

Hate something, change something

The astronauts on board Apollo 13 were saved because a team on Earth refused to give up on finding a solution. They stood before this mind-crushing task that seemed impossible to crack, the unprecedented problems that came with it frustrating them to no end. They kept calm and carried on, channeling their frustration into everything they could muster, and they saved the day. They hated the idea of failure so much that they were able to overcome it.

This is kind of determination you would want to feel throughout any organisation. It is hard to keep individuals from getting frustrated with their jobs, the problems that confront them or some lack of progress. Even inside that Apollo 13 team there were guys who at some point let their frustration get the better of them or were on the verge of being ready to give up. But there were enough inspiring people around them to keep them going. And they delivered. They succeeded in producing inventive and innovative thought at the moment it mattered most and translating it into decisive action.

Translate this team effort to any company, be it a startup or a multinational, and the only conclusion is that actively preventing individual frustration from taking hold of people is unbelievably valuable. Even better: actively training people to turn any kind of frustration around and make it work for them instead of against them.

Mission accomplished

These days a lot of attention is paid to the merit of having a strong corporate story. In many cases this is given by the need to establish the direction a company wants to go to and the strategy it needs to get there, giving management a better hold on organizational structure, innovation and R&D, marketing strategies, brand positioning, and so on. One of the relatively underestimated strengths of a corporate story, however, is its ability to bring together all those individuals that shape the workforce in a quest for a purpose.

People who know their organisation’s purpose are less inclined to be dragged down by frustration. Purpose, I know: it’s a word that has been widely abused. It is not a miracle potion for staving off all problems a company may encounter. Still, try to see purpose as a shared goal, a greater mission worth giving your all – just like everyone around you. Then it becomes an unrivalled way of keeping frustration at bay. On your own, it is easy to give in to irritation with the job, a lack of results or the project at hand. When working with a group of people who refuse to accept failure as an option, frustration is likewise kept to a minimum.

Companies with an overarching purpose that is known and embraced by everyone on board move forward faster than organisations that lack a bigger story. When workers know what the company has set out to do – change the world, starting with their own market – they will find it easier to focus their skills and determination to make it happen. They will be less likely to succumb to frustration because the feeling of being part of a greater story will fill them with the collective energy, willpower, resilience and inventiveness needed to solve the next problem, and the one after that, and the one after that …

Reverse frustration

Ideally, every man and woman who becomes part of an organisation should be driven not only by the company’s purpose, but also by one of their own. As individuals we should find some purpose in life, something we can really go for. This can be material or idealistic – or a bit of both – it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is something in everyone’s life that is worth trying to achieve. People with a personal mission are not easily frustrated by the petty things that they, like everyone else, encounter in life. They take them in their stride and refuse to let niggling negative details distract them from what they really find important. 

“I will never be poor again,” I once told myself. At the time, I knew this would mean a lot of hard work and overcoming a lot of obstacles. I would be lying if I said it’s all been easy, but I can honestly say that I have never allowed myself to become frustrated in the negative sense. My brand of frustration has always been one of reverse frustration. The source of a positive drive that makes me work harder and sharpen my thinking, so I can keep moving forward. Reverse frustration is what we all need if we want to achieve personal goals, what companies need to achieve financial goals, what brands need to achieve marketing goals and what the world needs to achieve real and lasting change.

When you have your basic material needs covered (financial independence), a new kind of frustration kicks in. A frustration driven by the need for a higher purpose in life, because your surroundings change and because the older you get, the more wisdom descends upon you – upon everyone, each in his or her own way. Nowadays I am driven by ensuring that everyone gets equal opportunities in life, because this is the sole guarantee for lasting peace. If you structurally deprive people of opportunities, you will get war. I’ve travelled to all four corners of the world, and I’ve seen it. This is why I co-founded companies such as Unbox.work and Schoolgency.com, and also why we contribute to society through foundations.

When it comes down to brass tacks, we all want to change the world and contribute in our own little way. Whether it’s the world around our personal lives, the business world or the planet as a whole. I think it is fair to say that the best chance we have of achieving this goal is by embracing the thought that frustration is a good thing. Companies and brands that want to capitalise on this untapped resource would do well to recruit from among the ranks of the frustrated, offering those “disgruntled workers” and “malcontents” a chance to shine and show what they’re really made of. Especially when it’s the competition that’s standing in their way …

New purpose

Earlier on, I mentioned that you need to hate something to change something. This is precisely the idea that Honda took up years ago, when the carmaker introduced a better, cleaner, quieter diesel engine. Honda goes with “The Power of Dreams,” a company story as much as a brand story that centers on the quest for innovation. It is a purposeful story, building on a positive redirection of frustration with the status quo. The brand's “hatred” of imperfection fuels its spirit and energises the company to go the extra mile needed, not only to move Honda forward but – in this case – the entire planet as well.

Many companies need all the mental strength, know-how, incredible skills and talent they can muster just to stay competitive, let alone move forward. Saying you want to “change the world” may seem like overreaching, but there is nothing wrong with this raw thought as the basis of whatever it is you want to achieve. There is nothing laughable about saying it out loud. Changing the world – saving the world even – is the best purpose imaginable, because a challenge this big leaves no room for frustration. From the moment you set out to change the world, you mark a spot on the horizon and from then on, every effort will be directed towards reaching that spot. Knowing that this is the big fat prize waiting at the end of this particular rainbow makes ordinary frustration is a non-issue. It’s the bigger, inverted version of frustration that changes everything.

“Let’s show them how it’s done”

Here's a story that illustrates the power of reverse frustration. An unnamed acquaintance of Steve Jobs was continually boasting about Microsoft, its new products, and what they were planning to do. “Steve hated this guy at Microsoft,” says Steve Forstall, a designer who led Apple’s iOS software division under Jobs. Apparently, every time Jobs had contact with this person, he would end up pissed off.

Jobs was eventually so irritated with Microsoft that he decided to “show them how it’s really done”. Driven by frustration and what has been described as “an almost pathological hatred of styluses,” Jobs had his team working around the clock to create a prototype of a multi-touch display. Not content to stop there, he went a step further – and had them use it to build a phone. The rest is history.

Would Jobs and his team at Apple have come up with the iPhone without the irritation of the mouthy Microsoft exec? Jobs was always frustrated with Microsoft in general, but here you can’t escape the feeling that without this one really annoying guy, Apple’s attention would not have been focused this furiously on trying to come up with something that would blow everyone away – especially Microsoft. The iPhone might never have happened, or might have happened much, much later or in some other shape or form.

Enhanced effort and striving for improvement

There are as many frustration stories around as there are living creatures on Earth. Frustration is a human condition; it is always lurking in the shadows, waiting to take hold of us. But the winners among us will be able to channel its energy into overcoming anything and anybody with the most astonishing solutions.

Frustration with horsepower created the combustion engine. Frustration with the Russians put Americans on the moon first. Frustration with big banking is driving innovation in financial apps. Frustration with expensive flights brought about the likes of easyJet to make flying cheap. Frustration with the EU led to Brexit. There is nothing that can stop the drive that comes from frustration.

Healthy frustration with anything will lead to something better. The power of reverse frustration is so enormous that we should all try to embrace its positive energy. Things like poverty, famine, inequality, injustice and diseases still exist because somehow, we haven’t gotten frustrated enough with them.

Perhaps we should hate them just that little bit more. Or a whole lot more. Let’s get truly, deeply, mightily and healthily frustrated and enhance our efforts. Let’s strive for more improvement. My guess is that we’d be changing the world before we know it – maybe not in no time, but with a bit of luck, still in our time.

There’s nothing we can’t achieve with reverse frustration

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group