Failure quickly leaves me gasping for air as I cuddle my blanket. My tissue box becomes my partner in crime while I blurt out frustrations to internet strangers. I demand to know what I did wrong and I want to know what I could do better. I feel desperate, anxious, and despair grips me by the heart. Not a good look, I know.
But my hyperbolic reaction doesn’t compare to the actual weight of the situation because true failure is rare. And while we’re on that topic, what is failure, exactly?
Our Relationship With Failure
Most people define failure as a lack of success. While that certainly matches up with the original etymology, this definition functions in a way that traps you and I in a cycle of defeat and the only beacon of light is success itself. Guilty until proven innocent. Empty unless completely full. It demands large-scale accomplishments worthy of celebration, trophies, and financial advancements to clearly show how “made” we’ve become.
There is no shame in celebrating massive wins. If you met a major milestone, please celebrate! You deserve it. However, that win does not have to disrupt your well-being during the slow periods when productivity dwindles down. The area between goal-setting and achievement can quiet down, can still, and doesn’t need to answer any questions. The value in these moments shine brightly when considered with grace. So I’d like to offer a challenge: Eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary.
A Life Lacking Failure
Four distinct visuals come to mind when I think about this challenge. Questions lead to opportunity, time becomes a friend, self care comes more naturally, and small moments take on a new emphasis.
Questions lead to opportunity.
When feeling stuck, ask questions. Are you really taking steps backward, or is all of this part of the process? Cognitive biases will burden any efforts to halt self-criticism, so work on Socratic questioning methods to break the habit. The most simple questions to help you start are “Is it?” and “What does that actually mean?”
For example, I made a couple of mistakes last week at work which left me feeling nervous around my irate supervisor. She questioned me to the last detail about each one with a pointed look. I thought to myself, “She’s probably going to fire me. This is the end.” And then that voice in the back of my head wondered…”Is it?” And I let that question seep into the following weekend. It caused me to think about what I could do differently, how to show up as a better version of myself in the future, and I started thinking of strategies to keep track of things so I could follow where I went wrong before. It doesn’t mean I know the answer to whether she’ll fire me or not over those mistakes because I can never know that. However, it provided me more choices rather than sitting there nervously and avoiding her out of shame. I can do meal prep over the weekend to ensure I eat better the following week, helping my brain stay focused for longer. I can keep a journal and document each action I make so I can track my decision-making at work. I can do meditation exercises which energize me and help me process my feelings so that they don’t linger over into the next week, enabling me to greet everyone with a smile and set an emotionally fresh aura around me. Questioning gave me my autonomy back and showed me the circle of influence I affect.
Asking “What does that actually mean?” has a similar affect of opening up available options that may not have been apparent before. When I contemplated the meaning of failure, I decided that the word affected my life with no positive connotations and let it go for colloquial use. There are so many other options to choose.
Let go of your own limits by questioning their boundaries. Attempt to take yourself over the edges of them. You might be surprised at how expansive your options actually are.
Time becomes a friend.
Think of the journey you currently travel. The starting point and ending points were probably determined quickly when you began planning, right? And yet, the harder, step-by-step details serve the most crucial role throughout the ordeal. What happens when you veer off into the wilderness and get lost? What does it mean when you’re off track? If only our mental navigation apps automatically recalibrated our lives for us!
Getting lost can act as a time of play and adventure, however. We CAN recalibrate although it will change your ETA. If you enslave yourself to time, making it the final testament to your success once you meet your arbitrary deadline, allowing your plan to veer will become a stressful phase. Allowing the road to switch over and follow the direction that you set will keep you moving forward and you’ll enjoy the ride regardless, whether you meet the deadline or not. Keep your destination rigid and the time to get there flexible.
Self care comes naturally.
I felt horrible a few months ago when I realized that a profound thought did not greet my mind in a great while. The realization saddened me, as I’m used to my mind creating an atmosphere more fun and interesting than the real world the majority of the time. I love my brain and my imagination, but in the situation I lived in at the moment, that ability lessened for a time. At first, I let it affect my health. I surrendered to depression and didn’t take care of my physical or mental state. Defeat ruled my self-esteem. The depression alleviated after a few months, which gave me the opportunity to challenge my current worldview. I decided that not thinking anything in particular was ok. I didn’t have to conflate this phase with my personality or with my self-image. I could just not think anything profound for a few months and allow myself the space and time to veer from my destination for a while. I explored the woods. I welcomed the stillness.
I allowed myself to endure the depression for months because I knew that for me, it came in several month phases and would eventually go away momentarily. I gave myself permission to do the absolute minimum during that time. And once I could come up for air, I made the choice to be ok with my current self. While many might see this as defeatist, it ended up a cruical part of my life as I had new eyes and thoughts when I got back on track. This time period also gave me a new perspective on small talk as it was the only kind of communication I could manage during that time. I learned the value of it and will continue to engage in it for many years ahead on my own personal path.
Small moments take on a new emphasis.
Every step of your journey comes with significance. It means you’ve turned another corner closer to the end and conquered a new aspect of a challenge. Breathe in those moments and let them give you life by celebrating them.
Celebrate Your Small Successes
You can clearly track your progress and see how far you’ve come when you start celebrating the microscopic milestones. The sense of not being “there yet” won’t bring feelings of incompetence as usual. Instead, you’ll have a steady stream of dopamine and serotonin to feed your system on the regular. You’ll have a log of positive vibes to keep yourself motivated when you hit those rough spots to remind yourself that a temporary obstacle does not have to indicate a failure.
This worked for me when I returned to my hometown. I acquired multiple friendships from my travels, giving me access to lengthy face times and long-distance camaraderie. And although during this time period I experienced depression, I felt ok knowing that there were people I could talk to in a moment’s notice – but these friends had no physical presence, of course. After four months living in my new environment, I gained a total of one friend within my current city of residence.
One day, someone challenged me to ‘prove my success’ at friendship and building stable relationships. I knew this person’s criteria demanded physical interaction, so I shrugged and said “none,” but while I watched myself being judged, I felt completely comfortable inside. I had my proof already with the multiple friends I made overseas. I had my strength to endure the judgment because I knew I would gain more friends in my new city. And I didn’t let someone’s criticism sway me.
If I did not take the time to celebrate the friendships I made when I traveled, I would have crumbled under the pressure to meet this person’s view of “real friendship”. Instead, I realized how different relationships can look for others, and chose to love the ones I made in the way they’ve shaped themselves.
Ways I celebrate my small successes:
- I take a trip to the library or a chill coffee shop
- I buy myself fresh flowers for my workspace
- I add a “Hell Yes” to my wardrobe or home decor
- I pamper myself with a DIY Spa Day
- I write a Thank You note to myself for choosing this path and putting in this amount of work so far, making sure to include lots of positive affirmations
- I write a Thank You note to the person who helped me or inspired me to accomplish this goal
- I invite someone special to me to celebrate in one of the ways mentioned above
Some people may not feel particularly motivated by eliminating the word “fail” from their vocabulary. They might prefer to welcome “threats” to push them forward. If you find yourself this kind of person, I highly recommend the “Fail better than you did last time,” mindset instead of what I’ve presented here. It certainly has its own usefulness.
But if you’re like me and find the method mentioned in this article helpful, in what ways have you erased “fail” from your life? How have you celebrated your small successes?
Let me know in the comments, below. Peace and love.