Some people kept on failing to no end.
I meet new friends every week. Some time ago, I joined a small gathering at a new friend’s house. He looked and sounded happy and contented with his life. But the intuitive and feeling part of my personality detected trails of unsettled psychological problems. I wasn’t sure about it, until everyone asked him to play us some songs. For a pianist like him, emotions couldn’t hide from the piano.
I talked to him afterwards, and yes, he had many problems and he used these parties to cloak his loneliness. Every other single aspect of his life was successful: career, status, finance, comfortable living, entertainment, professional capacity.. except relationship. You may say artists have a troubled heart and a confused soul. But no, he’s a logical person. He knew what went wrong. He even knew why. But somehow, he kept on falling into the same traps and making the same mistakes. A long series of break-ups happened because of the same reasons, starting with his divorce; each time gave him the same panic attack. But he never learned.
Many self-development books have said it: making mistakes creates the stepping stones to success. It’s true.. only when we know how to make mistakes successfully. Many people keep on failing from one business to another, trying to convince themselves that they will be successful one day (because the books and others have said so), they just need to persevere. By definition, it is: to continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulties with little or even no prospect of success. It is important! For sure.. but not enough. If the course of action leads to failure, and we know it will, why do we still continue the same course? My pianist friend deeply desired a healthy relationship, he persevered to find a right match, he wasn’t afraid to expose himself to potential vulnerability with another person, he dared to make mistakes. Just like anyone out there who has a big goal, desires deeply for it, isn’t afraid to go for it and make mistakes. What happened? He still fell into the same traps, because he kept on going on the same course of action. Thus, he kept on making the same mistakes.
To fail successfully is an art. Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” I beg to differ (slightly). We will fail anyway! People tend to think of ‘failing’ as a very serious and monumental event. Not true! Failures are small stepping stones leading up to a success. We don’t need a big failure to learn; actually, we should not try to learn from big failures. We learn from small failures most effectively. No matter how much we plan, we will certainly have to fail those steps to arrive at the desired outcomes. As such, we may as well plan to fail properly.
1. Fail early: How we start our learning curve
Failure is a huge emotional and psychological toll. If anyone tells you that he doesn’t feel any negative emotions when he fails.. he’s lying. Constant failures will expose us to constant negative emotions. Automatically we tend to get rid of those emotions by not doing anything (which is the only way not to fail).
Good news number 1: when we’re young, we don’t have too many obligations yet. Life is not so stressful. We are not swamped by negative stimuli. Then it’s the perfect time to try out failing. So fail early.
The same for a journey to achieve any goal. Early in the process, we definitely need to have small failures so that we move along the learning curve faster. Do not wait, because potential failures will just accumulate if we avoid them, until one day they will come all at the same time. That’s the big failure that we should definitely avoid.
John C. Maxwell talked about ‘learning before mistakes’. I didn’t understand it until now: we learn from small failures so that we don’t make the big one.
2. Fail quickly: How we progress on our learning curve
What if you’re too old with too many obligations. Good news number 2: small bites are easier to swallow. A big failure coming after a long period of preparation is very likely to cause bigger psychological stress. To fail quickly means to “just do it” in small steps even when we’re not ready (by the way: readiness is a state of mind, which means we CAN be ready at any time). We will fail anyway (Yes! That’s the fact!) so we may as well fail quickly to get it off our chest.
The purpose to fail quickly is to move us up the learning curve quickly. Just simply failing won’t help, but evaluated failures with small lessons to learn and small actions to overcome will do it. Don’t wait until we have to learn a big big lesson from a big big failure.
3. Fail frequently: How we maintain our learning curve
Each time we fail, we have identified a potential area to grow. Growing is not exponential, it is gradual. Failing should then also be gradual. A plan for personal or professional development is in fact a plan for appropriate failures.
We all have a comfort zone. It is crucial for our well-being, because moving out of it drains our energy. We need this zone to rejuvenate and rest. So don’t think of comfort zone as a negative concept.
On the other hand, the only way to develop ourselves in any aspect is to step out of this zone. It means doing something we haven’t done before. That will certainly carry to a potential failure; because the only zone certain of success is the comfort zone. Big success requires a big comfort zone, meaning that zone must grow. Gradual growth requires gradual trips out of comfort zone. Bit by bit.
If we want to develop ourselves more completely, plan to step out of the comfort zone frequently, that means, fail frequently.
4. Fail correctly: How we direct our learning curve
All of the above will speed up the progress of development through failing early, quickly, and frequently. But towards which direction? Going fast doesn’t mean a thing if we’re going towards the wrong direction.
The reason why we don’t perform well is usually described in three aspects: lack of the right knowledge, lack of the right skills, lack of the right attitudes. Evaluating small failures will reveal those gaps. Small gaps are easier and quicker to fill. Another reason to fail quickly and gradually.
To fail correctly means to reflect and evaluate all the progressing failures to identify and prioritize which areas should be developed next. Then plan to have more failures in those areas. And make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.