As I sat at the bottom of the rock climb, I felt the weight of my goal, my perceptions of it, and my discomfort of being seen continually not-succeeding. I was frustrated with myself and felt the shoulds rearing up in my thoughts. I should be able to do this. I shouldn’t be taking this long. Everyone says I can do it, I shouldn’t be falling, right?
“I just want to do this and be done with it and move on!” I blurted out, no longer able to keep the tears back. The weight of the big, bad, f-word was heavy.
We need to talk about failure – coming up short, swinging and missing, stumbling and falling. As a society, we tend to brush these concepts under the rug, into the back of our minds, and into a place of shame and judgment where they fester, telling us lies and fiercely holding us back. If the only shared and celebrated outcome for us, others, or society is the achievement of the end-goal, we lose sight of how many twists, turns, re-do’s and slow-downs it takes to do big things.
“Rock climbing is nothing to get bent out of shape about,” has been my motto. I do this because I love it, because it is fun, the constant reminder to myself. At the end of this particular day, I felt sad and exhausted. I didn’t want to give up on my goal, yet I really wanted to give up and move on…
At the beginning, while working hard to make progress on this rock climb, I was intent, inspired and respectful of the difficulty ahead of me. Slowly, unconsciously I started seeing my objective as simply physical, and I expected success. “Yes, I can physically meet this challenge,” I thought. Over so many attempts, my physical abilities rose to the occasion and I felt free to reduce the goal to mere strength and technique. As I neared completion, I lost my focus, grew casual, and let expectation push me around.
The most life-changing result of this rock-climbing experience for me was a dramatic shift from the outcome-driven, success-showing, process-hiding way I went about big, scary goals in life. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to authentically love the challenge that I could imagine trying hard without needing “success.” And from that open-hearted stance, I could begin to pursue uncertain goals with more and more of my actual capabilities, in rock climbing and every area of my life.
We need to talk about failure, or whatever word you want to use, because it is real. It has been happening all around us since the beginning of time. We need to talk about failure because to deny the reality of learning and imperfection is like denying gravity – ultimately painful.
Maybe the most important reason we need to talk about failure, learning and imperfection is that doing so actually sets us up for success. When we own how much work we will have to invest into what is important to us, we are infinitely more likely to take those steps, however long it takes. After all, these are the steps that, ultimately, lead to what we are chasing.
Success and failure, as classically defined and understood, are rarely truly in our control. They operate primarily by luck and timing. Deconstructing success means accepting that it is simply… our best. And failure? It is not about the arrival of any outcome, but instead what arises when we hold ourselves back for fear of discomfort. The beautiful thing about this perception is that it includes consciously adjusting the outcome (for safety, based on resources, or because your best is just different day to day), rather than doggedly pursuing the prize beyond its worth.
When we approach our efforts this way, we are infinitely more likely to pursue what is important to us. Important goals like applying for your dream job, asking for what you need, falling in love, staying in love, training, coming back from injury, changing course, changing course again, and refining that idea until it sings…
Failure, then, is not the lack of success. Thankfully. It is the holding back of our true potential; it is staying safe and controlled out of fear. Failure is editing our efforts rather than taking authentic action. I believe, failure is something we control, rather than a surprise outcome based on luck.
But if we find ourselves trying (pretty) hard, and things still not working out (like that rock climb I mentioned), then what? Well, here are some places to begin collecting data on what might need more work…
- Reach out for broader help and feedback. Open up the windows and let some fresh air into your pursuit!
- Dig deeper into the hurdles. Reflect on where and when you are holding back, there will be crucial subtleties that are weighing the process down.
- Give your fears and judgments permission to speak up and be heard. Then consciously adjust according to what is actually helpful from their opinions.
- Get radically honest about your values and what authentic actions you are driven toward. Do those.
This last one may be the most important and often overlooked. The great pain of “failure” as we typically talk about it, is the drastic misalignment in our values and true-self. Despite our fears, we let ourselves dream, maybe take some action, and then stop. Yet, those authentic desires stay, undernourished and needing expression. Unmet, failure starts to fester, becoming scary and controlling.
What would you love to do? What would you love to dive into more? What would you love to adjust in your life? Start there and let your loved ones know how it goes! We need more people talking about failure, changing its meaning, and fully expressing what they want to get out of their lives.