Life at Reed: Embracing Failure

“You’re a failure.” “You just can’t do it.” “Give up.”

Though I was bullied until I began to lift weights in high school, and though I’ve been called many names, and been yelled at, laughed at, punched, kicked, ostracized, hungry for days, excluded, friendless, kicked out of a hundred spots when I lived in my car, dumped repeatedly, screwed over, stolen from, severely injured, and completely alone, I’m pretty sure that nothing has hurt me as deeply as the feeling of being a failure. I believe that much of the pain I listed above would fall under this sweeping characteristic, that of being a failure. Yet today, I will argue that failure, as you know it, is not a negative thing, and failure can be seen as success.

What do I mean by failure? This is a great question—not just for this essay, but for you to use in your own life. The feeling of failure we get when we believe ourselves to be a failure is usually not our own. That definition of failure is someone else’s—perhaps your parents’, your friends’, or society’s. Here is an example from my own life: a while back my grandmother got good and drunk and began ranting at my cousin, with whom she is often displeased. She began to talk about how the young men in our family have all been disappointments, and she finished with me, saying how I dropped out of West Point and let everyone down, how I failed to become a climber, kept leaving jobs, and was now a shell of myself after several surgeries. Ouch. When I first overheard this, it obviously hurt. I don’t think she meant it; she was just angry with my cousin. But I’ve heard people who did mean it, and at those times, I often internalized their criticisms. I would go into social situations and not speak. My confidence was gone. Because of the damage from surgery, I had lost 25 pounds of muscle and was excessively thin; I no longer approached people I was attracted to. I only half-assedly tried to work out because I was so afraid of the pain I’d felt from surgery, the way I would look to others, and the fact that my injuries had stopped me so many times. And I didn’t apply for the jobs I wanted, because I thought myself under-qualified. What a load of crap.

Let’s take another look, using the example of my grandmother. Now, by the time I heard her saying I was a failure, I had finally come around and begun to look at things in a new light: my own light. Dropping out of West Point was a hard decision; only two people thought that maybe I should do it, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Success. I dropped out to become a climber full-time, and sure, I may have failed due to congenital injury, but what could I do about that? I still managed to climb some of the best rock and ice routes in the American west. Success. Leaving lots of jobs? I found twenty things I don’t want to do and received a hell of a lot of motivation and experience I can use to apply to the things I do want to do. Success. Was I a shell of myself after surgery? Sure, I was pretty much crushed financially and physically, but for someone who was told that the only thing he’d be able to do was walk with pain, I was freaking killing it! Success. Now, I don’t say all of this to impress you, but rather to impress upon you that you need to define success for yourself, instead of relying on the definition that has been provided for you.

What is the definition provided for us? In the internet age, we can compare ourselves to more people than we ever could before. The people we see on social media filter their lives in order to provide a more positive representation of themselves. To top it off, we live in a nation where those that are idolized are those that present themselves as better than they really are—Hollywood actors and actresses. The end result of this environment is that our picture of success is so inflated that it is, for the most part, completely unachievable. We feel worse about ourselves when we fail to meet a completely unrealistic standard.

How does our failure to meet these standards affect us? When we fail massively, we often never try to achieve again. Here is an example we can all relate to: in social situations, our fear of failure paralyzes us. Instead of focusing on what is going on in the situation (what people are doing, how they are feeling, what events are happening), which would provide us with valuable information that would allow us to thrive socially, we instead focus our thoughts internally: “How do I look? I look terrible. They’re judging me—how are they judging me? Oh, I’m doing so shittily, I need to do better. Why can’t I do better? I can’t think of anything to do better. Damn it! I suck!” At this point you might exit the situation entirely, keep away from all people, fail to develop relationships, or fail to perform in the social situation. This failure further confirms the perceived fact that you are a failure, causing you to beat yourself up even more, which keeps you from succeeding in really any given task. What I want to stress here is that you would do just fine if you weren’t caught up in your own head. Here, a quote from Seneca is most apt: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” This is what I alluded to in my introduction when I said that nothing has hurt me more than the pain of being a failure. It was my own judging of myself that the situation was bad, that I was bad, or some variation thereof that truly hurt me.

Let’s return to another great example of how fear of failure paralyzes us: procrastination. A big paper is coming up. The deadline is two weeks away. In the first week, you have several large periods of time available in which you could be writing the paper. don’t work on the paper. Instead, you go play video games, you hang out with friends, you wake up late, etc. Why? You know that it would be much easier for you if you began immediately. The finished paper will be massive and complex, and will take damn near thirty or forty hours of work. You view typing the paper in its entirety as a success, and not typing it as a failure. When you sit down to work on it, you can’t possibly think of what to write because you have so much ground to cover. Your feeling of failure is a feeling of pain. You do not attempt to write the paper until the looming pain that would come from failing to turn in anything at all overrides the pain of failing to put quality work on the page. A similar phenomenon happens in the social situation example. You perceived the entire situation as too complex to be manageable, and, expecting failure, you did not even try to succeed. And it was this expectation of failure that led you to fail, and that will continue to make you fail.

How can you fix this? First, break down the task in front of you into the smallest possible task. In the case of the paper, simply focus on going to the library and writing down your thoughts on something for a few hours. Align your expectations—don’t think that you’ll have a full paper idea, or that’ll you’ll type three pages. Go for a page of notes, or a just a few sentences, or maybe one paragraph. When you succeed, you will believe that you can keep succeeding. When you have this belief, you will keep trying, you will be more impervious to failure, and, eventually, you will succeed. But simply having the belief that you will succeed is not enough. Learn from your failures. If you failed to type a page because you kept asking yourself, “Why can’t I focus?” then you will find an answer to that question. Observe and learn from your mental states. Instead, ask yourself, “How can I focus?” At the party, instead of asking yourself, “Why can’t I talk to anyone?” ask “How can I talk to people?” If you were lost in your thoughts and this caused you to fail, note that failure, and turn it into a success—the success of learning that you should instead focus on the person in front of you and what it is they are saying (again, simplifying the task you're facing). There is much less to manage than you think. It is the thought that there is so much that makes it so.

Above, I described several methods of thinking for you to practice. I also recommend that you write down reminders of these methods and post them where you can see them. Otherwise, as creatures of habit, we are doomed to continue our old ways of thinking. Catching your own cycles of thought is difficult to do. So what can you do to condition yourself to be impervious to failure? Remember above how I mentioned that a juxtaposition of unrealistic “success” leads us to view our own lives as “failures.” It is high time that you set your own standard. Write down what it would take for today to be a good day. I do this almost every morning. Luckily, I was blessed to be homeless for awhile and severely injured. So today, every day I am fed, bed, and walking is an excellent day. Still, I continue to write down what would make each day great. True professionals practice the fundamentals everyday—the best players in the NBA shoot free throws and practice lay-ups for hours. If you want to be good at something, you have to practice it over and over.

What else needs to be practiced? How about appropriately aligning your expectations? If you will only be successful when you make a million dollars, solve all of the world’s problems, and please every person you know, then you will never, ever be successful. Likewise, if you are only happy when everything goes your way, you will never be happy. Remind yourself each day about the things you are grateful for: you go to an elite college with an abundance of resources, you are housed, you are fed, you have friends, and you live in a beautiful area that is incredibly safe in comparison with the rest of the nation, let alone the world. I am not saying that you should not be aware of the problems in the world, but I am saying that being aware of those problems all of the time will make you less able to solve them, will make you less happy, and will probably make life worse for those around you. Say you want to solve problems in the world and in your own life. Are you doing what you can? Stop freaking out, stop continually focusing on how much more there is to do—this thought will make it harder for you to succeed because you will always feel like a failure. Your assignment? Write down three things you are grateful for (try it, every day) and then write down three things you are doing well, or three things that are good about you, and write down that you are doing all that you can do. There is no need to worry about that which is beyond your control. If you have trouble controlling your thoughts or observing these negative feedback loops, you can take up meditation. For now: (1.) watch those thoughts, (2.) write down what you are grateful for, (3.) set your own standard for a good day, and (4.) write down a few affirmations—things you are doing well—every day. 95% of you reading this essay will not do this assignment, and you will either continue to be affected by failure or will continue to see the world through a lens that provides you with unrealistic expectations for success. If you want to succeed, you need to practice every day.