The Curious Joy of Failure

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Why is failure so taboo? We are all somehow expected to be empowered and successful individuals, emotionally intelligent, financially robust and leaving only a carbon toe print in our wake without so much as a random fart spoiling anyone’s day.

I’ve expended so much energy trying to stay on the upward swing phase of life and being a conscientiously evolved human – because if you fail you’re obviously ignorant, or not trying hard enough to be good enough.

Then my Ironman coach told me that he expected things to go wrong in my upcoming simulated Half Ironman. In fact, he became noticeably boisterous about the prospect of me coming unstuck in the challenge he’d put in front of me. He said the point of doing it was to see what went wrong and how to fix it. Because now was the time to make mistakes and have problems and learn from them, so that I would be well-prepared for whatever surprises Ironman threw at me on the day.

I didn’t want to fail. I’d run a half marathon race the preceding weekend and been kicked in the gut by a nasty fluorescent sports drink at the 14km aid station which cramped my style, to the point of heaving, and robbed me of a sweet personal best time. (Note to self – don’t drink anything bright blue ever again!) I’d also been trying out a different pre-race snack which possibly didn’t help.

For him my food and drink fiasco, which cost me the PB result I’d been so confidently chasing, had been a gold medal performance in what my body didn’t want to imbibe when racing. What I perceived as failure, he considered to be invaluable, and far more useful to my Ironman race planning than achieving my best finish time.

Its easy to forget that failure is like beauty – its all in the mind of the beholder.

What is a failure? It’s when you have an experience that doesn’t meet your expectation, or in some cases the expectations of others.

Expectation sets you up for failure, because it assumes that there is only one desirable outcome – the one that you have set your heart and mind upon. When you suffer from the notion that you are not good enough, there’s a tendency to perceive any set-back, mistake, unsatisfactory outcome or inability to achieve a goal as validation of your not-good-enoughness. It becomes personal. I’m a failure, a loser, useless, you tell yourself.

However, a failure is also a gold mine of information about that experience and yourself. This information is knowledge, and knowledge is a powerful resource.

Forget about looking for sparkly silver linings when things don’t turn out how you expected. If you want to find the inherent insights within a failure, you must take a wholistic view of what went on and be honest with yourself. You must have an expansive view which includes the good, the bad and the plain confusing. It’s all helpful information about yourself and the situation you are unhappy with.

It’s okay to feel bad when you don’t achieve a goal. No one likes to fail, especially when diligent effort has been expended and the goal has personal worth. Our goals reflect our identity and values. Disappointment, doubt, frustration, fear – these are all valid responses. Give yourself some space to off-load the emotional tension. And then put your bruised pride into time out.

An effective antidote to failure is genuine curiosity.  Ask yourself, what useful facts can I discover in this undesired outcome that help me to make sense of what happened and why it happened that way? What can I learn about myself from this experience?

If you have the sense that you’re often failing, consider: what is it that I’m not noticing? What mistake, or action, or belief am I repeating that’s getting in the way of making positive progress?

What I’m especially loving about taking on the adventure of doing an Ironman event is that it’s shredding the cushy comfort zones which have kept me feeling safe for the past 20 years. My routines and habits are getting a real shake up as I accommodate new demands on my body and in my daily life. All this discombobulation is refreshing, because I’m facing that big hairy scary beast of Ironman failure as a possibility, yet I’m having a fantastic experience being a first timer at doing this event. I’m allowed to fail, so I can have fun and enjoy the training without any expectations of what I should be able to achieve today, tomorrow, next month, or on the big day itself. Fortunately, I smashed the simulated Half Ironman and didn’t have to learn any hard lessons that day. But I have no doubt that I still have some hidden weaknesses which need to be teased out and confronted before I make it to the start line. What’s essential is that I’m still smiling, whatever the result.

Whether you succeed or not is less important than whether you acquire the core insight from each experience and use it to help you create a more harmonious and fulfilling relationship with yourself and the world around you.

So go on, get curious!

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