Failure… for anyone setting out to achieve something, be it climbing a mountain or just getting out of bed in the morning, the shadow of failure can be a stalking presence keenly waiting to pounce and rob us of the joy of success. Yet does that presence have be a maleficent one, or can we embrace it and value it as much as our accomplishments?
Not long ago I shared my approach on embracing weakness which is similar to my view on perceived failure. I use that word ‘perceived’ with meaning, as in the moment what you feel is a failure anyone else will see very different, such as how much you’ve achieved to even get to a place to attempt what you have. There are very few things that are certain when you set out to achieve something, but both finding weaknesses and encountering failure are right up there in terms of likelihood. It’s something I wish I had realised earlier then I did, may have saved me a a few dark times and backwards steps in my own training when I hit injuries or my failed challenge attempt.
When we talk about failure the size of the missed goal means little. Someone determined to get out of bed on time, or someone taking on a 100km walk, the emotional impact for someone following failure has little to do with the how big the original challenge was. I’ve seen failure hit when I volunteer to support walks. I’ve had to deal with my own failures, not just from physical challenges but in day to day life. We all have and we all will.
When it happens there will be endless clichés and motivational posters out there to help. There are countless films and books that centre around a success story, someone coming back from defeat and achieving the end goal in the face of adversity. Even in children’s books and cartoons it’s one of the earliest lessons we learn in our culture. There will pats on the back, shoulders to cry on, sympathy, empathy and words of wisdom. In their own way all these things can help, but lets be honest, when failure has you in it’s grip that initial darkness can be hard to fight through. As the claws sink in it tries to turn all this positivity and support that’s thrown at you on it’s head, flipping well meaning words in to self deprecation and negativity. It wants you to beat yourself up and throw in the towel of ever trying to achieve something ever again…
The first step to embracing failure is simple, it’s realising that all that silly stuff, all those fictional films and stories, all those well meaning people with their advice… they are absolutely 100% right. It’s so hard to see at the time yet it really is true.
There are various models around that quantify the negative frames of mind that want to derail us away from our goals. There’s the Chimp Paradox and in schema therapy references to Punitive Parent and Demanding Parent modes. Often they don’t talk about tackling the negativity head on, as that’s unlikely to work and liable to draw us deeper in to a negative frame of mind. Instead they talk about taking a moment, stepping back and looking to unravel the root cause of the negative thoughts. I like to go one step further by bringing that negativity in close and, just like I do with weakness, turn it on it’s head and use it to push me further towards where I want to be. When failure happens it gives you more valuable insight then you could get from any number of successes. So much certainty and clarity. The mere fact you’ve even been brave enough to try something that has the possibility of failure puts you a million miles ahead of where you were before.
Don’t indulge the desire to beat yourself up. I’ve tried to avoid giving cliché advice in this post, as if you’re reading this whilst failure is still fresh when you read an overused line, that likely you yourself has used, you’ll just turn off. Please try though, as out of all of the little gems of advice the drive to beat yourself up, particularly with hindsight, achieves less then nothing. Stop. Use that energy for something else, anything else.
There are always reasons why we set ourselves goals. When the spectre of failure appears in your life dig deep, remember why you originally set out towards that goal, then gently embrace failure, bring it close and use it to fuel your next steps and beyond. Believe me, the tougher your path, the more you have to overcome then the sweeter that feeling will be when you do finally reach your finish line.