Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dealing with Failure

I have tried to write this post about four times now, and each time I feel like I'm not really doing the topic justice.  Which is a bit funny, considering the subject.

The subject (if you didn't read the title) is dealing with failure.  And if I'm going to give you my thoughts and advice on dealing with failures and mistakes, I'd like it to be comprehensive and meaningful.  It should be a robust attitude that handles all forms of failure, even once you've moved past playing video games and sports, when you're talking about real life, where your mistakes might have serious consequences.

I have claimed before that games and competitions are useful because they can teach us lessons on how to handle life.  So if we develop an attitude through those things, then say "well it doesn't apply when you get to the real world," then we may as well not have bothered.  A big part of why I love competition is because of what you learn about yourself, and how you can apply those lessons elsewhere.

So let's talk about failure.


Failure can threaten us in two ways.  Very often it's a mixture of both.

The first are real consequences that threaten our survival, our security, our social connections, and the well-being of others.  Losing your job due to a big mistake could fall under this category.  Being a surgeon and making an error that cost somebody's life definitely counts.  You don't just deal with the emotional fallout of failure here, but the actual world changes too.  And you won't categorize it as a failure if that change weren't for the worse.

The second way that failure threatens us is by attacking our self-regard.  The failure makes us question our worth, whether just as a competitor, or possibly as an actual human being.  You didn't just screw up, but you are a screw-up, and a failure, and you're dumb and bad and somebody should pour sulfuric acid in your shoes.  How awful of you to exist.

Often the second follows the first.  You screw up a job interview that you really need, and you were going to pay rent with that.  So you aren't just somebody who is about to be homeless, but you're a piece of trash that can't hold a job.

Sometimes the second stands alone.  Sometimes you go out bowling with your buddies and you're having a good time, and the game really means nothing, but when you gutterball the fourth time in a row, you can feel pretty crummy about yourself.  Why are you so bad?  Why can't you just roll a ball?  You're uncoordinated.  You're an inferior human being.  How awful, etc.  Perfectionists and people with high-self expectations fall prey to this all the time.  I know, because I'm one of them.

The easier question to answer is the one that deals with the second.  In a strange way, it also takes care of the first, to a certain extent.  Why is this?

Because your goal is to remain, as often as possible, in a mindset that promotes the best, most efficient, most productive action.  Your first goal can't just be "success" rather than "failure."  That's like answering, "how do I bench press three-hundred pounds?" with "be strong."  Your real goal must be, "I will maintain the attitude that will most likely lead to success rather than failure."  Because if you do that, you'll end up succeeding more than you fail.

So this begs us a new question: what mindset is that?

This is the counter-intuitive answer: the mindset that is most capable of succeeding is one that accepts failure.  A lot of people only want to succeed, and they won't do something if they think it might not work out.  You can't be that person, not if you want the optimal mindset.  Here is why.

For starters, you can never guarantee success.  You can only take steps to tilt the odds in your favor as much as possible.  You can train your hardest, and eat the right foods, and get enough sleep, and only fly the airline that has highest safety record so you don't crash on the way to nationals.  You can take supplements and hire the best coaches available.  And your opponent might be somebody who did all that too, but had better coaches and better sponsors and better genetics.

The world, in all its glorious chaos, might do everything it can to shaft you.  You don't control the weather and you don't control possible malfunctions at the train station that makes you miss your interview.  No matter how prepared you are, something can go wrong.  You don't control everything.  It is, quite literally, possible for you to do everything right and still end up in second, or ninth, or last.

All you really do control are your choices and responses.  Sometimes, even your body and your judgment will fail you.  Failure and misfortune can always happen, even within.  There are no guarantees, there is no certainty, only varying degrees of probability.  The only certainty is that you can control your beliefs.  You can choose to adopt a certain mindset towards the world and act accordingly.  You can always try your hardest.  And you can always try to prepare yourself for the worst.

You can start by imagining outcomes, and then you can accept them.  Become okay with them.  Let them be possible truths.  You may perform miserably.  You may be on the cusp of victory, then err at the last moment and spend the rest of your life thinking, "if only I hadn't choked."  You may perform kind of okay with nothing memorable.  You may do the best you've ever done in your life, and win everything forever and ever, amen.  These outcomes are all possible.  If you cannot accept those outcomes as possibilities, as future worlds you may have to dwell in, then don't participate.  You are wasting your time, and eventually (probably not long from now) you will be sorely disappointed.

Ask yourself instead, "why am I doing this?"  If you have the choice to participate in something, do it because you love the process.  Don't play to win.  Play to experience, as fully as possible, the joy of your game.  Even when--scratch that, especially when--you're doing something stressful and frustrating that has serious consequences if you fail.  Because that is when you will need your purest focus the most.  You want to worry about failure because it will be awful if you do, but worrying about failure only increases its probability.

And you can't just ignore failure.  You can't choose to avoid thinking about something; doing that makes you think about the thing you're trying not to think about!  Failure can't be blocked out or ignored.  But it can be accepted.  When you accept it, when you make yourself okay with it, when you shake hands with your possible failures, then they cease to be threats.  They cease to actually matter, and your brain discards the thoughts as irrelevant.  And this lets you focus on the task at hand, more and more.

You must become immersed in your process, and not obsessed with your results.  There are people who want to be authors, but they do not want to write.  There are people who want to be rock-stars, but they don't want to practice instruments.  There are people that want to be rich entrepreneurs, but they don't want to learn and invest and take risks.  In the words of bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman, "everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights."  To these people, if you suggested they might fail, they'd go, "why bother then?"  And that's how you know they'll never be decent authors or rock-stars or entrepreneurs or body-builders.  Because they won't be able to make it past the inevitable failures to the joys and successes that lay on the other side.  They obsess over results, and never get them.  If they are lucky enough to get results, they are paranoid and neurotic about maintaining them.

Love your process.  Enjoy it.  If you do, your time investment will never actually be wasted.  One moment of failure will not undo days, weeks, months, years, decades of preparation and work.  It will not erase those positive experiences from your memory.  This is the mindset that allows you to focus purely on what you are doing.  The best way to avoid worrying about the outcome is to accept all possible outcomes beforehand.  When you avoid worrying about the outcome, you increase your focus on your actions.  It is focus which helps you achieve the best results.

Once you've accepted that you might fail, you can put the failure out of your mind.  It's handled, it's taken care of, it's all been planned for.  When you fail (you will eventually fail), you may be disappointed, sure.  But assuming you haven't been lying to yourself, it won't last.  That is the elegant beauty of this attitude.  It doesn't just help you succeed more than you fail.  When you maintain the right attitude, you recover from failure insanely quickly.  You experience it in its entirety, because you are not afraid.  And because you no longer associate it with your value, and you no longer obsess over it, you are ready to move on almost immediately.  You can begin to seek new possibilities and actions right away.  If you have lost things in the real world, you can begin the process of recovery immediately.  You can spend less time beating yourself up, and more time recouping your losses and regaining lost ground.

So you will focus and succeed, or you will focus and fail, but learn and move on.  And both outcomes are superior than eternally fearing and stressing over failures.

Thanks for reading.  See you Friday.


  1. I struggle with this frequently. I am HYPER-Competitive. I do everything as fast I can. When I play games, I win or I don't have fun. It made everyday an emotional roller-coaster.

    I recently started to change by just slowing down my normal activities, and I've noticed it bleed over to competitive things. When I'm not thinking and moving 1000000 millions an hour, I'm actually much happier. I have time to reflect on my successes, which is a surprisingly great feeling.

    It's nice to see this written down, It will be easier to keep in mind in the future. Thanks Rob!


  2. Everything written here is priceless. You're writing is truly inspirational and very moving. Everything here is what I've been doing and thinking for years and it does have results. You come out so much better than you go in, and the feeling is unbelievable.

    I hope the best for you Rob, you're doing a great thing by doing write-ups like these. Keep at it!

  3. HugS wrote a blog post with his reaction to this post (along with other stuff): http://smashboards.com/entries/the-journey-entry-3-picking-up-a-new-character.4779/

    Other than that, great stuff.


  4. Shwagzamaxima (James Hebert)August 28, 2013 at 8:04 PM

    Dude, for real, keep doing this. You sometimes have no idea how much sense you make. I think every person who competes in the field of ANYTHING should read this.