Learning to Fail
One of the more poignant moments I can remember in recent years is getting the crap beat out of me shortly after one of my biggest life failures. Just weeks after signing my divorce papers in 2012, I had to endure a few rounds of hard sparring at a martial arts testing and I got pummeled. Already bloodied and bruised, in the third round I was kicked so hard in the ribs that I doubled over and took a knee. In order to pass my test, I had to make it through all three rounds - I was literally saved by the bell.
In a twisted way, it was actually sort of cathartic to have my body feel the way my heart did – battered and broken. While getting beaten up isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend, I can also tell you that failure is almost a certainty in life and learning to cope with pain is a critical part of progression in anything.
Yet culturally, everything and everyone seems to be telling you the opposite – that success happens by finding your bliss and seeking pleasure. The quick fix is everywhere you look. Get rich quick seminars, crash diets, and fad exercise programs tell you the news your brain loves to hear – that there’s a convenient solution and a comfortable change - it just takes hard work and the right program.
But what if it wasn’t about the program, the right timing, or even how hard you worked? What if advancement was simply about the willingness to face the pain and the certainty of failure.
If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that I may or may not reach my goals, dreams, and aspirations, but I will most definitely fail while trying. The silver lining is that failure brings with it the opportunity to find authenticity and wholeness through introspective work and forgiveness. While more life lessons are surely on their way through my next mess up, here’s what I have learned so far:
o Ego can take you to the depths of hell. In every major failure I’ve had, ego was in the driver’s seat. You are not your body, your job, or even your relationships, but you become the thoughts you give power to. Ego says you are defined by quantities, while your true self is defined by qualities.
You may lose your job, but you haven’t lost the qualities that got you that job. You may lose your relationship, but you haven’t lost the opportunity to love with your whole heart. Next time your ego tells you that you are defined by what you have, remind yourself that in the end, you will be remembered by your qualities.
o Honesty isn’t your best policy, humility is. Your failure is an opportunity to perfect your virtue which is simply the opposite of your vice. My vice is pride. When others wrong me, I cast them aside and never, ever turn back. Puffing my chest up may be my default, but when I am at my best, humility governs my thoughts and actions. The problem is that when we fail, we often look for something or someone to blame, even if it’s us. In doing so we can lash out to those who have wronged us, and frequently, that lashing out is self-directed. Here’s the thing though – playing the blame game ultimately proves nothing. What matters is the humility to face the wreckage and move on.
o Quitting is sometimes your best option. Anyone who’s ever been divorced can attest to the utter devastation associated with such a separation. You don’t get married before friends, family, and God to see it fail miserably. Compounding the effects of a trauma like a divorce are the prospects of acute pain, loneliness, and the loss of companionship. But if love, justice, and truth are worth fighting for, abuse and hatred are worth leaving behind. Leaving a relationship, job, or bad habit is sometimes our best option as something built on a false foundation isn’t worth salvaging, it’s worth tearing down and starting over on the right footing.
o Victims don’t heal. One thing I have seen over and over again in my in life both personally and professionally is that no one ever makes a lasting change that they don’t genuinely want to make. People make changes when they’ve had enough and their back is against the wall.
It sucks to get downsized. It sucks to get hurt or heartbroken. It sucks to get sick. It sucks when your genetics aren’t perfect. A lot of life’s setbacks aren’t our fault. It wasn’t your fault that your parents were lousy role models or your boss is an asshole. But it is your fault that you hold on to your pain, anger, and self-justification. True freedom can only come about by releasing negativity and allowing wounds to heal though the natural order of time and forgiveness. The statute of limitations is now – you aren’t a victim, you have the power of choice.
o You must face the pain. Sometimes you’re going to get your ass kicked and it’s going to hurt - maybe even worse than you think. It’s tempting to run the other way. But the great irony of the things that mask our pain (booze, sex, food, etc.) is that these temporary reprieves only prolong and compound the inevitable pain. One of the best ways to cope with pain is to find support. If your body hurts, treat it gently and get a massage. If your heart hurts, join a support group and seek those who can understand your plight. If your mind hurts, force yourself to sit with your thoughts until they pass.
More than anything though, we have to face the hurt and the trauma. Peace is only found on the other side of it. There’s no way around the storms of life – our job is to face the pain and release its grip by swimming with the current.
Learning to fail isn’t something covered in school. There are no participation trophies in the game of life. We’ll have many wins if we’re fortunate and few failures if we’re lucky. But failure is going to happen and regardless of circumstance, the work is clear – peace of mind and character are forged with finding the resolve to face the mess and the courage to clean it up.