Mantra Monday: Dealing with Failure

Good Monday to ya! I can say that now because by the time this is posted, most of you will be off of work for the day. Not me, but that’s okay because I work from home, mostly and I don’t mind it a bit. I rambled on last Friday about getting some rest this weekend and I failed miserably at taking my own advice, so I figured that’s what we’d talk about today. What do we do when we fail? How do we take it, and what can we make of it?

Failure 101: Turning Negative to Positive

The first thing to know about failure is that it’s in the past.

If you’ve failed, then the moment of your failure is already behind you, and you’ve already started on the road to redemption. Every thought you have about your failure from here on out, every decision you make about how to deal with the aftermath of your failure – that is where your power lies.

The second thing to know is that everyone fails.

I fail. I have failed. I am failing. I will fail again. You fail. You have failed. You are failing. You will fail again. He fails. He has failed. He is failing. He will fail again. She fails. She has failed. She is failing. She will fail again.

I fail regularly at keeping time commitments and scheduling my time efficiently. I have failed in so many things I couldn’t count them all if I tried, but a few examples I feel comfortable talking about are divorce, saying terrible things to people throughout the years that I can never take back, spending over $20,000 on a year at a private Christian school from which I’ve used exactly zero credits, and many many more. I am currently failing at keeping my commitment to be more responsible with money, but I’m working on it, and making progress – even in failure. I will fail at least a dozen times tomorrow. Hopefully the consequences will be small and I can react appropriately.

The third thing to know is that most failures aren’t as bad as they seem.

I’m going to quote Tom Petty here, “I’m so tired of bein’ tired / Sure as night will follow day / Most things I worry ’bout / never happen anyway.” Those words are from the song “Crawling Back to You,” which will always hold a special place in my heart – as will the entire Wildflowers album. We all miss you, Tom.

Tom’s point, I think, is that – for most of us, at least – our problems our bigger in our heads than they are in reality. Now, of course, if you’re dealing with some serious shit, then I’m probably not talking to you. Sometimes we fail big and sometimes we fail small, and most of the time we fail in between. The big failures are hard, but they too, are in the past.

When you fail big…

The best thing to do with a big failure, I’ve found, is to pick up the pieces as best you can, reflect – don’t ruminate – on what went wrong and what you might learn from the failure moving forward, and start over with those lessons in mind.

Sometimes, though, after a big failure, you need a little time to heal. That’s okay, but don’t let your healing time zap your gumption to try again. At some point, you have to get out of bed again. You have to feed yourself, bath yourself, clothe yourself, go to work again, do the dishes again, and get on with your life. I often find you can use those mundane tasks for meditation.

Again – I want to draw a clear line between meditation/reflection and rumination/negative self-talk. It’s natural and okay to look back on a big failure and wonder how you might have avoided it, but it’s not healthy to hold on to that moment of failure and to keep re-living it. That is a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress, and if you find that you simply can’t stop re-living a failure, you should probably see a therapist to see if he or she can help.

Shift your focus from failure to future.

After you’ve reflected and healed from your big failure, you need to focus on starting over. Take what you’ve learned and re-evaluate your goals. Chances are, you failed because of a plethora of variables, including those within your control, and those that were out of your hands. It’s important to remember that the fact of your failure does not make you a failure. It makes you human. Humans fail (see “The second thing…” above if you need a reminder).

Once you’ve got a new goal – or maybe the same one again – don’t tarry. Start working on it right away.

The final thing to know is that it’s not final.

Yoda was right when he said “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” We need to heed the Jedi Master as a way of re-shaping the way we look at failure – in order to recognize failure for what it is, a step of progress on the road to success.

Let’s unpack the idea of “try,” for a moment. I’m gonna get all English teacher on y’all for a moment here and look at the word “try” in several different sentences. Then, we’ll examine the connotations (implied meanings) of “try” in each instance.

  • I’ll try to be there at 8:00.
    • If you’re on the receiving end of this sentence, you can be sure there’s a good chance I won’t be there at 8:00. Right? Isn’t that the impression you’re left with?
  • I’m gonna try Thai food tonight.
    • No you’re not. You’re going to eat Thai food for the first time tonight.
  • I tried to catch the bus.
    • You missed the bus. You might have run, you might not have, but either way, you missed the bus.
  • I tried to get to the gym three times last week.
    • Really? Did you? Why didn’t you get there three times last week? Was there something that prohibited you from getting off of the couch, getting in your car, and going?

In each of those sentences, the implication is of failure. Yoda had it absolutely right. The word “try” sometimes implies effort, but it almost always implies effort entangled with failure.

Instead of saying “I’m trying,” say “I’m working on it.”

It should be immediately clear what the difference in the connotations of these two phrases is, but, then again, I’m an English teacher; so, in case it’s not clear, let’s break it down.

Saying “I’m trying,” as demonstrated in the sentences above, carries with it a subconscious connection to failure. I’m not going to tell you that if you subconsciously expect to fail then you’re going to fail every time, or vise versa, but I will suggest that there are mountains of evidence to suggest that positive thinking, visualization of success, and a mindset of growth all increase positive outcomes for individuals who practice them.

The lesson is… never try.

So don’t try. Obviously, not the way Homer Simpson meant it. But instead, start working on it. When you’re working on something, small failures are expected, and welcomed as part of the process. If you’re working on something, the connotation is that you’re making progress.

Again, make sure to have a mindset that you might not have mastered whatever you’re working toward yet, but you’re making progress toward it. And don’t forget that every failure is another step in making progress toward your goal.

Alright, y’all. I’m going to hit the gym now. I hope you’ve either already done so, or that you have plans to do it tomorrow. Stay strong. Stay disciplined, and get back on the proverbial horse after you fall off. It’ll make you a better, stronger rider.

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