Failure is a natural part of life. Making mistakes and moving through our problems is an inevitable occurrence. Many people have completely given up on the idea of pushing hard and giving their all because they fear failure, rejection or loss. As a result they have become the walking dead, refusing to actually live their life and face the mistakes and failures that come with it. Other people go forth against their goals, but still seem to hold something back, as if not giving all of their resources could then be used to justify a potential failure. However, these people end up at the same level, because growth can only come when we are investing all of our efforts. Being able to handle failure is crucial to our growth and our success.
Handling failure isn’t easy. Unfortunately, being able to handle failure takes a lot more than a platitude. Trying to rephrase your failures in terms of “learning opportunities” rarely breaks the strong, negative emotional connection we attach to those failures. Even if we know, logically, that getting rejected when asking someone on a date is a “learning opportunity”, most of us will still feel the pain associated to that rejection. How can we break this destructive link in our minds so that we can give our all without drawing back into fear?
Pain is Good… (sometimes)
In order to break the connection that we place in our head between the fear and pain that causes us to avoid taking action we need to recognize that it can actually be useful. At this point I am sure some of you are saying, “Useful!?” you just told us how destructive and wasteful this pain is, “How can it possibly be useful?”
Feeling pain when we fail is actually a good thing. Think about it. If you didn’t feel bad when you failed to stick to your diet, do you think you would be able to continue on it? Probably not. The pain of failure is often an incredibly great motivator. I remember hearing about Michael Jordan discussing what caused him to reach the threshold that took him to greatness. In the discussion, he said how the pain of giving his all and losing was what drove him to take his game to the next level. Pain of failure is not a bad thing. Without any pain for our failures and we wouldn’t have much motivation to even bother.
The problem is that the pain of failure can sometimes overwhelm another source of pain that is even more necessary, the pain that comes from doing nothing at all. I believe it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Failure is not something we should pride ourselves on, but it is far better than doing nothing at all.
To fail in the attempt of something still involves some success. You were successful in actually making the attempt. To do nothing is a failure of both counts. If the pain of doing nothing at all, of stalling and procrastinating, is not greater than the pain of failure, you will not take action. Without that sense of pain associated to doing nothing, it is impossible to move forwards.
In front of you I place two boxes. One of them contains a five dollar bill and the other one will give you a painful shock if you put your hand in it. It is impossible to tell from the exterior which one will give the reward and which one will give pain. Based on this observation, you may decide that the risk of pain is too great to warrant taking action. Sure you might get five dollars, but you don’t really need the money badly and the shock is very painful.
Now suppose I take a gun out and tell you that if you don’t stick your hand in one of these boxes in ten seconds, I’ll shoot you. Suddenly, a shock doesn’t seem that bad at all. In fact, even if you got the shock it would probably be a relief that you at least avoided the impending doom from my sadistic, albeit hypothetical, game. In this case, the pain of not taking any action at all was so much greater than the pain of failure, that you were driven to take action.
What might this game have looked like in real life. Perhaps the two boxes could be the two results of asking someone on a date. If successful, you get the date. If you fail, you get a sting of rejection. The sting of rejection is entirely self-inflicted, however. Unlike our electric shock, you feel rejected because you choose to associate pain with a failed attempt. As we said earlier, a small amount of pain can ensure that we try to do a good job, but too much pain and we won’t take action. Because this pain is entirely self-administered, the logical risk of this scenario is next to zero. The benefits of potentially forming a relationship with someone greatly surpass the negative consequences.
We can force ourselves to take action by associating more pain, more fear, to doing nothing than to the possibility of failure. Associating more pain to doing nothing involves asking the right questions. Ask yourself questions about what the consequences will be if you don’t take action. More importantly ask yourself questions that put yourself into a state of urgency. By creating the feeling that if you don’t act now, you won’t have another chance, you begin to associate more pain to not taking immediate action to putting it off.
Being able to brush off failures is largely the result of creating a stronger drive to take any form of action, successful or not, instead of putting it off. This association can also be made externally. By creating a physical punishment for not taking any action, you can often create even more motivation to move forward. For example, if you want to quit your job, give your friend a letter of resignation and get him to promise that if you don’t quit by a certain date that he will mail it.
Ask the Right Questions
Aside from simply associating more pain towards procrastination then failure, there are ways you can reduce the sting from failure itself. As I previously mentioned, pain from failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it is to encourage you to succeed. However, sometimes the pain we inflict upon ourselves for our failures is unwarranted and serves only to discourage us. There are several questions you can ask in this case to take control of your failure.
Did You Do Your Best?
A question I ask myself whenever I have failed is: “Given the information and skills I had at the time, did I do the best job I could have done?” Beating yourself up for an unavoidable failure is a waste of your time and unnecessary pain. If you tried your best with the resources you had available, then there is no need to feel pain for failure.
If you go up and try to speak in public for your first time, you will probably be nervous. If you aren’t successful, you may start beating yourself up for your failure. Asking this question reminds you never to punish yourself for something that you couldn’t have done any better. The pain of failure is provided to motivate you to do your best and to direct your progress, not to expect perfectionism.
What Have I Learned?
Another question I ask myself when I have failed is what this failure has taught me. As long as I can draw an empowering lesson from my failure then it wasn’t a waste of time. By immediately recognizing what you have learned from your failure and immediately affirming how you will use this new information to avoid failure in the future, you reduce the pain from the situation.
The lesson you draw needs to be an empowering lesson. For example, you can get rejected for a job promotion and feel some pain for that loss. In response to this question you might immediately say that you have learned never to ask for a promotion again. Don’t get stuck in this state. Don’t settle for a meaning or lesson that doesn’t empower you. Remember, an empowering idea is one that gives you more options, more control and a greater understanding. Settling for a disempowering lesson will only let the pain persist.
Separate Your Ego
Your ego is what you identify as being you. If you asked yourself, who am I? Your ego would answer. It might list the things that you own, your relationships or even your skills and interests. Failure will sting far worse if it is a failure of your ego, not just of your skills or abilities. If you get rejected when asking someone out on a date, you could respond by saying that this was a rejection of your communication skills, your approach or just that there wasn’t a connection. You could also respond by saying that the rejection means that you aren’t worthy or worthwhile.
As soon as you associate your ego to a failure, any pain from that failure becomes an order of magnitude larger. By separating your ego from your failures and problems, failures are caused by something outside who you define yourself as, but within your direct control. It is at this distance that problems are meaningful. While blaming others so it is completely outside our control won’t help, blaming your ego also makes taking action impossible. Don’t take failure personally.
I don’t associate my ego with any of these external properties. I am not my body, nor am I my skills. I am not my possessions, nor am I my beliefs. The only thing I attach my ego to is my consciousness itself. By defining myself in this way, there is no need to be defensive. Fear and pain from failure and rejection diminish. At this point the only pain you feel serves as just a pointer to help keep you on track, it is no longer debilitating or devastating.
Is it easy to get to this point? Hardly. There are many times when my ego tries to envelope some aspect of myself and this is when my failures become hard to manage. But through constant work and re-evaluation you can draw your ego back towards something that is solid and unmoving. Although your skills, possessions or beliefs may encounter failure in reality, your consciousness never does. By anchoring ego to this fixed point, it makes failure far easier to brush off.
Failures are part of life. The challenges and obstacles we face are what make life worth living. Only through them can we experience fulfillment, satisfaction and true happiness. By ensuring that the pain of doing nothing is greater than the pain of failure, we make sure that we continue to take action despite the risk. Asking the right questions when we fail ensures that we don’t give ourselves excessive pain or continue to repeat the same mistakes. By anchoring our ego to something solid and unmoving, failures become something we can control. Between the peaks of mountains there are often great valleys and chasms. Utilize your failures to make sure you get the most out of your life.