What if Failure IS an Option?

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

– Winston Churchill

Most of us have heard the saying, “Failure is NOT an option.” It seems to fit well with some kind of spy story, where the character is warned of the dire consequences of not completing their mission. The saying has seeped into our popular culture, and for many it becomes a kind of mantra or goal.

This sounds like a worthy goal on the surface, and there are some cases where it’s true (high-stakes things like space missions or cloak-and-dagger spy work come to mind). There’s a problem though, particularly for those of us that tend to be more perfectionist. For many perfectionists, failure can tend to mean, “Anything that doesn’t live up to my (often impossibly high) standards.”

Case in point: I started this blog at the end of 2018. As is my nature, instead of just jumping in as soon as I had the idea, I did a few weeks of mulling as well as a lot of reading online about how to create a successful blog. Most articles suggested that to be “successful,” a blogger would need to write a new post at least once per week, at a minimum. I decided that seemed like too much, and thought two weeks should be plenty of time as well as providing the regularity needed for a following. After my first post, I sort of panicked. Unused to sharing so candidly, and not sure what I had gotten myself into, I became afraid of what would happen with the blog and more or less forgot everything I had planned to talk about.

A couple weeks later, I felt pressured to create another post but my heart wasn’t in it. I forced myself to write again, and though it wasn’t bad I wasn’t terribly happy with it either. I realized that I had lost sight of my original goal for creating the blog, which was simply to share some thoughts I had in hopes of helping me grow and encouraging others that may have similar growing pains. (The irony of becoming afraid of the blog and being vulnerable is quite ironic, if you remember my first post, ha!) After that second post I felt like my blog had failed, because not only did I create something I wasn’t happy about, but I had already lost sight of my original goal. For the next few months I didn’t write at all.

And yet, here I am again. I made the choice to write some more, because I felt like I had something I wanted to say, and not because I was forced to by some arbitrary measure of success. Whether that can be counted as a failure is debatable, but I have certainly failed in other areas of my life since then. The difference, as I have begun to learn, is that failure need not be fatal or final. I thought I had failed my blog because it wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t writing constantly. More recently, I got myself over-involved in several stressful and time-consuming commitments at the same time. I knew going in that it could cause problems, and it did. My performance in each of those commitments ended up being less than it could have been had I focused on one at a time, instead of all at once.

I learned that I have limits. I also learned something even more important: I did it all anyway. At many points throughout the process, I kept trying to find excuses to quit one or more commitments, because I was convinced I would be unable to do it all. Instead, I stuck with everything, and guess what? I not only finished it all, but better than I expected. Was it perfect? Certainly not. Was it wise? Probably not. The lessons learned, however, were incredibly valuable. (That’s not exactly failure territory, although to a perfectionist it can feel that way.)

There’s so much out there written about failure, and perseverance, and such things that I decided to take a different (and more personal) perspective. I’m not a psychologist but psychology fascinates me, and I have a theory about why I tend to avoid risks that I might perceive as “failure.” I know that every person’s experiences and thoughts are unique, but I believe we also have more in common when it comes to our basic fears and desires than we tend to think. So, even though this is deconstructing my own thought process, I suspect it may have a lot in common with other people’s experiences as well. Hopefully this is helpful to someone else out there.

I have a theory that sometimes failure itself is actually less frightening than what could actually happen as a result of the “failure.” It’s the unknown fear about how we may react to the failure. Put another way, we’re afraid what we may learn about ourselves if we dare to try and then fail.

For example, take an athlete who is considering running a very competitive race. As long as running the race is theoretical rather than concrete, the future is relatively unknown and could be good (perceived as success, or winning the race) or bad (perceived as losing the race, or perhaps not meeting one’s own expectations for performance). For some people, it’s more comforting to remain in the fantasy of not knowing the outcome, rather than risking the bad outcome. It’s easier to tell yourself that “you could run the race if you really wanted, but you don’t feel terribly inclined to try,” rather than to run the race and face the very real possibility of losing the race and having to deal with the psychological consequences. If you tend to be sure of yourself, this isn’t much of a problem; you know that whether you succeed or not, you are the better for having tried. Plus, dreaming can be beneficial but never makes things happen without taking action. On the other hand, someone who may be more cautious or is still growing in confidence in themselves realizes that if they risk and fail, they will have to wrestle with the thoughts of potential inadequacy. Why risk coming face-to-face with your own shortcomings when you could instead tell yourself, “I could be a great runner, but I don’t feel like it.” You get to keep holding onto your fantasy of winning the race without facing your own weakness. Maybe you even think that if you fail, it will just “prove” to you your own negative self-talk.

This kind of thinking actually makes a lot of sense in our own subconscious, but when it’s taken out into the light and examined, it makes a lot less sense. There are lots of problems with it, but I’ll mention two in particular for now.

Firstly, in a logical sense, even if you have a dream of incredible proportions, of accomplishing amazing things, if you don’t do anything with it, it remains completely detached from reality. Harsh as it sounds, without any action you’re doing nothing more than living in a fake world. It would be like someone buying a full set of gym equipment to keep in their home, and assuming that just having these items around will make them magically fit. It may soothe that person’s conscience, but it does nothing to change reality.  If you do the same things you have always done, chances are very good that things will remain the way they have always been.

The second issue actually gives us an excuse to look at things in a more positive light. This is where it gets exciting! It’s true that if you try something and fail, you might learn something about yourself that you would rather not know. But, if you look at the flip side, I think it is just as likely that you may learn something surprising and positive about yourself from how you deal with failure. You might learn that you had unrealistic expectations, but you learned something about what you are capable of by at least trying. You now have a clearer view of reality. Even better, you might learn that although you failed THIS TIME, you may surprise yourself with how you learn from the situation, pick yourself up, and try again, this time with better knowledge. Maybe next time you’ll get farther before failing, and learn something new again. You might learn that even though you failed, life didn’t end. You may even have to deal with consequences, but you can still move forward.

Or, maybe you won’t actually fail at all! Maybe you will succeed and prove yourself (and your fears) wrong!

Consider the possible outcomes you have from trying something that risks failure. You could succeed, beyond your wildest dreams, and surprise yourself and others. You could succeed, and accomplish your goal, allowing you to set a new goal. You could just scrape by, and learn that even if it’s not perfect, having something done is better than never having tried. You could just barely fail, and learn what you might need to do next time to succeed. You could fail spectacularly. Even in this case, though, you will learn that you can still try again, with new knowledge, or you can decide to focus your energy on a new goal. You can learn how you deal with adversity, and that is a very valuable thing to know about oneself. You may discover a reserve of perseverance and character that you never would have found otherwise. If nothing else, you may discover that there are people around you who love you and support you, whether you have succeeded or not.

Maybe you’re thinking about your life now, what you have avoided doing because you’re afraid of failure, or maybe you’re afraid of what you may learn about yourself if you do fail. Maybe it’s stopping you from changing something in your life, whether it be big or small. (Naturally, I’m not encouraging you to do something completely unwise. Use common sense, but don’t be afraid to risk a bit of failure.) I challenge you to have the courage to examine your own avoidance. Is it because you truly believe not taking a risk is the wisest thing to do right now, or is it because you’ve let your own fears hijack your life? (If you’re not sure, talking with some friends that you trust, particularly those with more life experience who know you well, can be a great way to get some outside input.) You can start with small things, and use the confidence gained there to work up to bigger things. It’s a process, and certainly one in which I am no expert (just traveling along it myself). Let me know any thoughts you have down below. Thanks for reading!

 

You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.
– Johnny Cash

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Are You Too Distracted to Reflect?

 

A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us. . . . It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, “Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?” . . . If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time—the stuff of life.
― Carl Sandburg

In my previous post, I introduced the idea of examining your life in an effort to find areas where fear may be having a very negative impact. It’s a necessary starting point for anyone who wants to make a change in their life, whether fear-related or not.

Here’s the problem: most of us, living in our fast-paced, busy, stressed-out lives, don’t have the time or mental energy to commit to really thinking about what we’re doing with our lives. It’s really a cultural phenomenon: as our lives become more and more inundated with technology along with our responsibilities, we feel greater pressure to fill every waking moment with something. Lots of people have written a great deal about this already: for example, on the glorification of busyness here, and on being overworked here (by Chuck Norris, no less), so I won’t go too much into that.

The irony is that for many of us this busyness is with things that are not really that important in the grand scheme of things. Some individuals are forced by necessity to work extra jobs or long hours. Sometimes the demands of parenting or caring for a sick loved one run us ragged in pursuit of good or necessary goals. More often, though, we’re busy with work that is meant to give us a little extra spending money, or pad our retirement accounts, or because we just can’t say “No” to more obligations. On the other hand, when we aren’t working, we often become consumed with entertainment. I was shocked recently when my iPad showed me a report of my screen time, and I had an average of several hours per day!

It’s incredible how easy it is to have your work and activity time running you ragged, and then your remaining free time dominated by social media, mobile games, or television. There is much merit in working hard, as well as a need to decompress with leisure time. However, I believe much of our free time is taken up with “low-level” leisure activities that really do us little good and much harm, when we could be spending time with “high-level” leisure activities that truly refresh us, such as spending time with loved ones, hobbies, reading and learning, etc. That’s another discussion for another time!

My point is that our busyness in both work and play serve to do little more than distract us from the important things in life. Days, months, and years go by before we realize the cost. In fact, it’s a lot easier to stay busy than it is to really wrestle with the tough questions. Not that we should all become philosophers, who do nothing more than think or navel-gaze all day, but the majority of us could do with a bit more serious reflection.

 

I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion and started this journey in my own life, except that I was forced into a time of reflection. One year ago I was staying busy with work, activities, and leisure. I was bothered by where my life was, but I made it a habit to bury those unpleasant feelings by getting distracted. Frankly, it was easier than facing potentially hard truths. Then, things started happening: financially I realized my current position and lifestyle was not sustainable long-term. Other people started encouraging me to look at doing something new. Pressure from these two sources finally got me out and searching for a new position.

Finally, immediately after I had accepted a new job (in May 2018), I became very ill with an unknown disease. Having struggled with chronic pain and fatigue for many years, I ignored the early warning signs, until it became so acute I could hardly even function. For the space of about two weeks I could barely walk or move around, much less work or do any activities. Though that time was painful and distressing, it had many good results. One of those was the fact that I suddenly had more time that I knew what to do with. Though my body was in pain, my mind was fairly unaffected, so I had to find something to occupy my time. YouTube and Netflix could only keep me busy for so long; eventually I realized that I had the opportunity to really face the questions I had been avoiding for far too long. It’s entirely possible that without this forced bed rest I would have simply kept ignoring my nagging thoughts.

My main reason for ignoring these nagging thoughts were, of course, fear. I feared that if I turned and faced these questions (“What are you really doing with your life?” “What are your goals?” “What is your purpose?”), it would mean admitting that I had made poor choices in the past (also motivated by fear). Being forced to face those realities was painful, and it was hard.

In the midst of my physical pain, though, was uncertainty, which ultimately overcame my reluctance to face those questions. Although the disease (which we now know is autoimmune) is now mostly under control, at the time I had no idea what was going on or how serious it was. In the realm of the unknown, the brain can take off in the hypothetical, and this was no exception. I found myself wondering about cancer, or MS, or even some kind of terminal illness. When those questions arise, the fear of facing your failures tends to evaporate! It turned out that those unknowns were the catalyst to the self-reflection I really needed, and God used this difficult and painful situation to accomplish something good.

(As a sidenote, it was really interesting how even throughout this difficult illness I had an enormous amount of peace. Though it forced me to face some really tough questions, I knew it was for my benefit in the long run, and God was somehow working things together for a positive outcome. I’ll tell you more about that some other time.)

Sometimes those times of desperate need, facing incredible unknowns, can be the only thing to shake us out of our frenetic daily routines and get us to slow down for a second. I hope that none of you have to go through a similar experience in order to come to the same place: rather, consider making it a point to slow down and take stock of your life. Are you using a combination of work and leisure to drown out those voices that are asking, “What if there’s more?” “Is this really how I want to live my life?”

Even if you think you’re doing well and have it all figured out, there is a voice you will always inevitably hear at some point which nags at you and says “but wait…” Don’t ever dismiss it, listen to what it has to say. Life will never be close enough to perfect, and listening to that voice means stepping outside of yourself and considering your own wrongdoings and flaws.
― Ashly Lorenzana

Reclaiming a Life from Fear

I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet. — Nadia Comaneci

You might think: Who in the world is Nadia Comaneci, and why is she headlining your blog? Glad you asked! Nadia is a former gymnast who competed in the Olympic games in 1976 and 1980. This girl from small-town Romania was the very first Olympian to ever earn a “Perfect Ten” on a gymnastics routine (uneven bars, Montreal, 1976). As if that wasn’t enough of an achievement, she went on to earn SIX MORE perfect scores in 1976, two more in 1980, and a total of nine Olympic medals.

Nadia_Comăneci_Montreal1976c

Source: By Unknown (Comitetul Olimpic si Sportiv Roman) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cool beans! But so what? you ask. What does this gymnast from the 1970s who lived at the other side of the globe have to do with us here and now? A lot, really. I stumbled across her story several months ago when doing a work project, and that quote of hers has been stuck in my brain ever since.

Here’s the thing: over the past few years of my life, I have experienced a lot of really good stuff, and a lot of really tough stuff. Through all of that, I’ve become convinced that I have been living a life that is largely controlled by fear. What’s more, I’ve learned that what Nadia said is very true: the best (and often only) way to defeat fear is to face it head-on. It is a journey I am just beginning, and as I start down this new road, I realize just how much other people also live their lives in fear. My goal with this new blog is to chronicle my journey of self-development and growth, and in doing so, help others grow along the way.

Before we get too far, let me introduce myself. My name is Michael, and I live in small-town Kansas. I graduated from college several years ago, and immediately after graduation accepted a job on the college staff. The opportunity to work at the college while also finishing a second degree there was too tempting, so I decided to turn one of my minors into another major. This was an awesome arrangement and worked out well, but after several years of this I realized my goals were no longer compatible with where I was.

 

When I started looking for work outside the college, I realized just how comfortable I had gotten in my little bubble. I didn’t really want to leave the tight-knit community, but staying didn’t fit my long-term goals, so it was inevitable. With some help from several mentors and Providence, I found a new job that has been a big blessing, but the transition was not an easy one. This is when I started learning just how much fear was guiding me. It took a combination of a physical health crisis, financial hardship, relationship difficulties, and the challenge of starting a new job in a new place to really get me to pay attention to my life, and the subconscious beliefs and attitudes that were dictating my actions and thoughts.

I hadn’t been satisfied with what I was doing and where I was going, but a “perfect storm” of events came together and really got me to wake up and pay attention to my life trajectory, rather than just reacting to life as it happened to me. I’m a firm believer that God can use even the greatest of tragedies to create something new and good, and I believe that all these circumstances coincided at this time in my life for a specific reason. I don’t think I can honestly say right now that I am thankful for all of them, but I believe in the future that may change. All too often we don’t think much about the important things in life until we are forced to.

I’ll share more about my story and the journey I’ve been on in future posts, but for now, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect a bit. Maybe you are in a similar situation. Maybe you feel like you don’t know what you want out of life. Maybe you’re going through the motions, or doing what you’re “expected” to do, but don’t feel like you are really “living.” Do you have hopes and dreams that you have abandoned? Do you feel stuck in a rut?

There are any number of things that could cause you to be unsatisfied with where your life is at or where it’s going, and I don’t mean to be simplistic. Each of us is different and lives in different circumstances, but might I challenge you to really think about WHY you are where you are? Is it possible that you’ve allowed fear to quietly take over parts of your life? Fear may not always be the root cause of these issues, but I believe it is a big culprit. It’s easy to fool ourselves. We don’t like to acknowledge our fears, so we bury them beneath excuses: “I’m not talented enough,” or “I’ve got too much baggage,” or “It’s not practical,” or any number of things.

Don’t get me wrong: fear is necessary and very helpful in some instances; in fact, it’s vital for survival. So often, however, it becomes a hidden monster that dictates our actions. That’s part of what makes us human. It’s no coincidence that “Fear not” or “Do not fear” appears so many times in the Bible. Being human makes us prone to fear, and fear often gets in the way.

With that in mind, I want to share with you my goal for this blog. I’ve never written a blog before, so it’s a new experience for me, but I don’t want to simply share about my own life: I want to help inspire others. For now, I want to begin to share my journey and hope it inspires you to start your own personal journey. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I will share what I am doing and learning.

I want to hear from you, too! If you have thoughts you want to share, suggestions of what to explore, etc., please share them with me! This is very much as learn-as-we-go type of thing.

My primary focus is to zero in on personal development, and my first focus is on facing fears. That will be my theme for the first several weeks, and then I plan to branch out to other personal development ideas, such as life skills. No doubt my subjects and thoughts will change and evolve as I get more comfortable with blogging, and as life happens.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a challenge: start thinking about your life, and how much you allow yourself to be dictated by fear. Fear of what other people think of you, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of change, fear of loss, fear of uncertainty, fear of pain, maybe even a fear of success! I challenge you to do the tough mental work of thinking through why you do what you do, and why you are where you are. It’s not easy, and you may not like what you find. It will take time, but you have to have the courage to be honest with yourself if you want to start making a lasting change. It’s not an easy journey to begin, but it is so worth it. You have little to lose, and much to gain.

Until next time!

-Michael

Please post any thoughts or comments below. Special thanks to my brother, Nathan, for proofreading and offering suggestions.

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