What if you just keep failing?

September 17, 2023

Just before I sat down to write today, a friend wrote to me and said: “I’ve been failing so much lately and I’m tired of it.”

Failure is an interesting topic. Many of us hate to fail. We hate it because we’re competitive (as I am, sometimes), because we’re embarrassed when we don’t do well (as I am, sometimes), or because we have really high standards for ourselves (as I do, most of the time). But we also know, instinctively, that we can learn from failure. We make mistakes, which is painful, so we remember our mistakes and do better next time.

In fact, on a basic level, we humans are problem-solving trial-and-error machines. Think about watching a young child eat. They make a mess of it again and again and again until, at a certain age, all the food ends up in their mouth rather than on the floor. The spoon hits the target consistently. You and I are simply adults going through the same process, except with adult problems.

Some people will tell you that failure is always good. After all, we learn from every single instance of failure, right? Wrong. We *can* learn a lot from failure, but we do not always learn. Sometimes we’re too tired to reflect. Or we don’t make time for it. Or we fail repeatedly in the same way and don’t make any new mistakes we can correct. Failing only helps if we learn, which requires that we pay attention.

If you feel like you’ve been failing too much, what can you do?

It’s tempting to try harder. That might work this time and perhaps next time and the time after that. But it won’t work forever. If you keep pushing yourself harder, eventually you’ll burn out.

Instead, surrender and reflect. Accept that you cannot succeed right this second. Accept—that is, acknowledge—where you’re at now. You’re not where you want to be, but hey, you’re alive! You got to live another day today. With some luck, you get to live another day tomorrow. That’s amazing. You are truly fortunate. If you don’t feel fortunate, write down five items you’re grateful for. You can definitely come up with five things. Practicing gratitude helps put things in perspective.

When I say “surrender”, I don’t mean: give up. I mean: stop struggling. Failure is part of life. Again, we are problem-solving trial-and-error machines. There will be errors. Stop struggling against the fact of failure. Accept it. Surrender to it. Don’t fight reality.

Then move into reflection. You can do this alone or with someone close to you. I like to journal about what’s going on in my life. I journal every morning, after taking some medicine and using the toilet and before heading downstairs for breakfast. I also like to discuss my problems with my close friends. (Of course, we discuss their problems too—conversations with friends must be balanced in the long term.)

Sit in silence. That is, meditate. There’s nothing woo-woo about this. It’s just a way to pay attention to what’s going on. To notice your thoughts and feelings and experiences. If you’re not used to meditating, you’ll be surprised how much insight it can offer you into what’s going on in your life in just a short session a day—say, ten minutes. Try out the Waking Up app, for example.

Do whatever else helps you reflect. Go for a walk in the woods. Schedule a spa day. Take a vacation! Many of you are Americans. America is great in many ways, but we Europeans have a much better understanding of the value of vacations.

When you surrender to reality—when you accept the fact of failure—you’ll save a lot of energy. You can put that energy to use the next time you try. And your next attempt will probably go better than your previous one because you took the time to reflect. Because you paid attention.

There’s such a thing as failing too often, of course. There are things you simply can’t do. I’m too old now to become a Formula 1 driver, no matter how hard I might try (and fail). But most of the time, our situation is not like that. Most of the time, we want reasonable things. Things we *will* achieve if we try, if we allow ourselves to fail, and if we don’t fight the failures but rather accept them. Surrender, reflect, rest, and try again. Eventually, you’ll get what you want.

In the meantime, don’t get hung up on failure. Embrace it. Your life is happening now. Waiting for “success” to be happy is a fool’s errand.

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