An attempt at failure

There are numerous things that I would like to be better at. I’m sure you know the old proverb “practice makes perfect”. This is, of course, the truth. practice does make perfect. A big problem with this, though, is that sometimes practice and thus the mastery is, or at last seems, “impossible”.

Fear of failure

There are a lot of reasons to fear the unknown, especially from an evolutionary standpoint. There are a plethora of reasons to be afraid of doing something, especially if *shudderother people, are involved.  Speaking in public? You might die! Going through a negotiation? You’ll be excommunicated if you fail! Trying to meet new people? You’ll try to talk to somebody, say something stupid and then they’ll tell their friends and then those friends will tell their friends and ohmygodhowdoIeven… 

I’m sure you recognise at least some of the thought patterns above. Those thought patterns are what I call “approach anxiety”. The anxiety to approach or tackle a problem. Approach anxiety can vary from some simple uncomfortable nervousness to full blown, capital A, oh-my-god-I’ll-have-to-leave-the-country-and-start-a-new-life-if-this-goes-wrong anxiety. Aside from it being an uncomfortable emotion, it can also seriously impede your progress. If the anxiety is big enough, that is a big dissuasion to actually do and thus practice the thing that gives you anxiety.

Failure’s place in success

Most of this anxiety is usually caused by a fear of failure. Both from an evolutionary and a cultural standpoint, failure is bad. Back in ancient times failure usually meant that you wouldn’t get a chance to try again.

An example of where this gets reinforced culturally is our education system. You study some material or you write an essay or whatever, and after you hand it in it gets graded and that’s it. If it’s insufficient you don’t get to try again. There is little feedback or chances for refinement.  Culturally we’re taught that failure is the opposite of success. Failure is what happens when you don’t succeed and failure means that success is forever outside your grasp.

Luckily an alternative mindset is also out there. I’ve seen it crop up mostly on the internet (where else). This mindet sees failure not as the opposite of success but as a path towards it. They posit that you have to fail x times at any given skill before you can succeed. You essentially “fail your way to success”, as some have put it.

This is of course, by no means a revolutionary idea but neither has it seen widespread adoption. I personally think that this is a much better approach to success. It makes the process of dealing with failure a lot easier. So what if you failed, that’s only to be expected! You still have to take responsibility for failing, of course. Taking responsibility for your failures is a critical part of improvement. However, if you see failure as a natural part of reaching success then it makes it easier to get back up.

Overcoming approach anxiety

There are a number of ways you can try to help you overcome approach anxiety. The first is to try and make the stakes as low as possible. The lower the stakes, the easier it is to attempt something. Sometimes you have to try something a bit easier before you can get to the real thing. I’ll take public speaking as an example here. If the thought of giving a presentation, fills you with a black dread, then maybe start out by giving the presentation for an empty room a few times. Not only will this give you the opportunity to fine-tune it somewhat, but there are zero stakes involved. Once you feel more comfortable, up the stakes a bit by giving it in front of a few friends. Keep doing it until you feel comfortable doing it and then move up to the next level.

I’ll take public speaking as an example here. If the thought of giving a presentation, fills you with a black dread, then maybe start out by giving the presentation for an empty room a few times. Not only will this give you the opportunity to fine-tune it somewhat, but there are zero stakes involved. Once you feel more comfortable, up the stakes a bit by giving it in front of a few friends. Keep doing it until you feel comfortable doing it and then move up to the next level.

A second way to give yourself a leg up is to have a clear metric. If we go back to the public speaking example, a metric could be the number of times you have given the presentation, no matter the audience. It’s easier to motivate yourself if you have a clear goal to work towards.

My failure board

One trick I’m going to try is having a “failure board”. On this board, I have posted 50 red notes and 10 green ones. Every time I fail I get to take a red note down every time I have a success I get to take down a green one. The goal is to clear the board by the end of the week. This way I have a nice visual representation of my progress. This also helps reinforce the idea that every failure helps you toward the eventual success.

The final piece of advice I have for you is to “trust the process”. This is a credo I learned from John Somnez. Often goals or achievements can seem very far off. When this is the case it can be hard to maintain your motivation. In this case, you should figure out what process you need to go through to achieve it and then stick to that. Instead of trying to lose 10kg, focus on losing 0.2kg each week. Not only is this more measurable, but it’s easier to maintain. I’ve noticed time and time again that specificity is key to success. This way you can transform a daunting task into something much more manageable.

This is sort of the approach I take to this blog. I’ve said before that I know my writing isn’t that good but I know that if I just keep writing then it will be eventually. This blog is a nice low-stakes environment for me to fail around in.

Failure can be a bitch. It can hurt to feel like you failed. I struggle to get back up after I take a hit. I just hope that you and I can keep failing and failing until we succeed. As a final thought, riddle me this: If you attempt to fail, and you do just that, have you failed, or succeeded?

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