The Art of Failing Well

In 2017 I thought a lot about making mistakes.  I didn’t make any, just thought about what would happen if I did.  Just kidding, of course I made plenty of mistakes.  I also did plenty of things badly, and can say with confidence it’s an uncomfortable place to be.  Regardless, I’ll bet you agree that it is better to try then fail, than not to try at all.  So my new skill I’m developing in 2018 is the ability to gracefully accept my failures at things I care about, then get right back up to try again.  AKA getting good at being bad at good stuff.  Needless to say, the ultimate objective is to overcome that initial troublesome hurdle on your path to pursuing any worthy goal.  What makes the leap so scary you’d rather just not go there? What stops you from being bolder in your choices?  That's the bit I'd like to chip away at this year.   

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The reality is that when most of us try something for the first time, we’re going to be bad at it.  If we can get more comfortable being bad at something we’d ultimately like to be good at, there’s a better chance we won’t give up so quickly.  If we can persevere in good spirits through the inevitably awkward early stages, we’ll do better than badly in no time.  We’ll probably do well, or maybe even great.  And if we really just don’t improve, well then it’s safe to say we gave it our all, and should sleep better knowing that.   

    

A few reasons I think you should get on board with this idea:

1.       One of the best parts of academia is the built-in supportive environment to test out new ideas and skills.  For most of us, this structured learning environment fades away after we graduate.  To keep the curious nature of a student alive, I think it helps to create a post-school framework to learn and grow in our professions and our lives.  Think of this skill of failing well as a kind of safety net for your life studies.     

2.       Lowering your expectations of yourself to get closer to reality is really liberating.  People tend to have such high expectations of themselves these days, it can be a really stressful way to approach a new venture.  I am all about aiming high and dreaming big, but let’s be reasonable.  If you’re just learning how to juggle, you are not going to understand how it works.  If you’re doing your first public speaking gig, you will think your heart might pound out of your chest.  Virtually no one gets it right the first time, or is an immediate master of anything, so why shoot for that?  Experiences without the pressure of getting it right are a lot easier to endure. 

 America's #1 fear.  I don't remember most of my first attempt.  But I did manage to not fall over as everything went black!   

America's #1 fear.  I don't remember most of my first attempt.  But I did manage to not fall over as everything went black!   

3.       Honing this skill has got to be an effective way to develop grit and mettle, two characteristics that can help you survive and thrive under any conditions. 

 Mettle: a person's ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.   

Mettle: a person's ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.   

4.       Great material if you ever want to be a stand-up comic.  When you let down your guard and put yourself out there, you are bound to meet some interesting people and collect some good stories along the way.    

 

A few habits I think might help you hone your new skill: 

1.       Hang out with children, and take pointers from them.  They are learning how to do everything, and don’t seem to notice or care that they don’t color inside the lines or dance to the beat.  If it brings them joy, they keep doing it.     

2.       Set your own pace.  And I hope needless to say, give yourself plenty of time.  This is easier if you don’t have exceedingly high expectations of yourself.  There are some deadlines we can’t escape, but when it comes to the ones we set ourselves, is there really any big rush?   

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3.       Pay less attention to what others think of you, they’re mostly wrong anyways.  This will clear out some of the noise.  If you choose to pay attention to someone’s evaluation of you, then give value to their opinion by listening to their feedback.  These guys can be your teachers in the school of life. 

4.       Meditation is my most common prescription these days.  In this context, it can help you bring focus to your motivation for taking on such an audacious goal in the first place.  Failing well will not be easy.  It may sound like a good idea now, but the next time you are red-faced and embarrassed over how badly you botched something, you may second guess going outside the status quo.  Any regular mindfulness practice will do the trick to remind you of your intention, and give you an opportunity to be kind and encouraging to yourself.  

Good luck everyone, and Happy 2018!