Ever felt like this guy?
That seems like kind of an odd subject for a post written by a guy that’s supposed to be helping people make personal goals and achieve them, doesn’t it? Allow me to explain:
I made a statement in my last post that went as follows:
In western culture, we have done a fantastic job of cultivating the belief that failure is bad and equates to the individual being bad. Thus, no one wants to fail and when we do, we don’t know what to do about it. One of the biggest disservices we do our children these days is not teaching them how to fail correctly. Let’s face it, they are going to fail sometime. It’s what happens afterwards that really matters.
I want to consider this idea with you for a brief minute.
In my observation of humanity, I have seen that there are three key factors in this concept that cause it to be so destructive.
- We do not understand that what we do and who we are as two separate concepts.
- We do not understand that failure (in many ways) is more helpful than success.
- We do not understand that our past experiences influence but do not determine our present reality.
Let’s look at these each in turn.
1. We do not understand that what we do and who we are as two separate concepts.
How many times have you watched someone do something they regret and then heard them say, “I’m sorry, that’s not me. I don’t normally do things like that”? It’s usually a subconscious reaction when we do – a response to something that horrifies us about ourselves. But in that subconscious statement is a kernel of Truth, and we need to examine it. The truth is, that isn’t you. Not because you didn’t make a mistake or because you’re horrified by it, but because you are not your actions. You are something else. I want you to try something. Pick up a pencil or other object near you, but as you do, turn your sight inward. Notice the intention, notice the deliberate movement, your brain telling your arm and hand to move. Notice the tactile sensation of the object you are picking up. Now, what noticed these things? Was it the intention? Was it the movement? Was it the sensation? No. It was something else. It was something that had to actively participate to have those things brought into reality. If that is the case, we cannot tie our actions to ourselves in any permanent sense other than that they were initiated by us. Once we apply our will to thought creating action, it goes off on its own and does its thing.
What does this mean for us? Perhaps in the past, we’ve done things we’re not proud of. Perhaps we’ve done things that turned out to be colossal screw-ups. The thing is, they are not attached to us anymore. That does not mean that we should not analyze and learn from them, but that we shouldn’t self-identify with them. The fact that some of your actions have failed in the past does not make you a failure. Nothing makes you anything. You’re just you. Once you detach from those past experiences, what you’ll find is that the emotion of pain and sadness that accompanies them melts away. You are left with a clear mind that can focus on what you are doing now and direct that with the best chance of success in your endeavor. We’ll talk more about this in point #3.
2. We do not understand that failure (in many ways) is more helpful than success.
As an engineer, I learned to love failure. We are asked to come up with brilliant ideas all the time to solve all of the world’s problems. As it happens, most of these ideas don’t work. The process of trying them and failing, though is invaluable. Thomas Edison, when working on his improvement of the light bulb (finding a filament that would be durable) experienced many failures. After failing roughly many times, he was asked how he could continue in the face of such failure. He said, in essence, “I have not failed, but have succeeded in finding many ways NOT to make a light bulb”. He only needed to find one to achieve his goal. In the process, he learned. He learned what didn’t work, and I would venture to guess, why. We can follow this kind of example. When faced with failure, the key to success is to detach emotion from it. Failure is not a commentary on us as human beings. It is simply an objective result to an impulse. It says, “what you tried didn’t work, try something else,” not, “you are worthless and a failure as a human being”. See the difference?
3. We do not understand that our past experiences influence but do not determine our present reality.
One of the things that holds us back from becoming great and doing great things is our desire to cling to the past. We look back and see our past successes and are afraid we will not be able to replicate them. We look back and see our past failures and are afraid that we will not be able to escape them or that we will become defined by them. We look back and see happiness that we cannot hold on to or sadness that we don’t know how to let go. Our past, even though it no longer exists, is a powerful influence on our present. The way to overcome this is to realize two important Truths.
a.) The past, once gone, no longer exists. Thus, nothing can be done to affect it.
b.) The events of the past only have power over us that we give them. The effects of the past may happen on their own and affect us, but we do not have to add to their power.
Once we understand these two things, we can use the past for what it is intended for: learning. We can look back and learn what didn’t work and why. The phrase is often used, “hindsight is 20/20”, meaning that we have a more clear view to the past because it is already gone and we can look at surrounding events more carefully. This helps us understand the “why” of the effects of our choices. Once we know that, future choices become more logical, easier, because we can draw upon heuristic.
So we see that failure is not something to avoid, but embrace. Anything that helps us learn how to do things better is something we should seek out. It is also not something that we should allow to color our self-image. Such an image is and needs to be separate so that our failures can have the proper effect on our lives – as a teaching tool rather than a whipping stick. Spend some effort to learn how to fail correctly. Then, share the knowledge with someone else. The world will be a better place when we stop letting our failures tell us who we are and start letting them teach us how to be what we can be.
– Josh Walles
the Mindful Life Coach