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How to Fail Properly

Failure, it’s the one thing we try to avoid like the plague. We try to avoid it to the extent it causes us anxiety, pain, sleepless nights and possibly even trauma. These are things I have also outlined in my previous post. And they are very real consequences of fearing failure.

I personally feel that failure has received a bad rep. Yes failing sucks. Especially if you do it in front of thousands of people, just after boasting you were going to succeed in a grand manner. But hey, wipe the embarrassment of your face, learn and move on. Do better next time. That’s how you fail properly. I will discuss failing properly in this article as a nice step-by-step program.

Step 1: Try Whether you are convinced that whatever you’re aiming for will succeed, you are slightly more cautious or you’re downright negative and insecure about it, at least give it an actual try. Going with the mindset “this will definitely not work,” puts restrictions on the amount of actual effort you put in. As a result, you put in less effort due to your mindset. Consequently, the likelihood of failure increases.

What you should do for everything single thing you try is: have a positive mindset and an actual plan. A positive mindset can look like a Tumblr quote: “You can do anything you put your mind to!” Or just the slogan from Nike: “Just do it!” Whatever positive reinforcement works for you, just apply it.

When it comes to having an actual plan, things become more nuanced. Plans are quite context specific and as such require research. Define what it is you’re trying to do, have a goal in mind. What do you need to make that happen? Are there intermediate steps that need to be reached before the end goal can be reached? If so, how do you go about reaching these steps? Compartmentalize your goal so it becomes less daunting and more achievable. This is what trying looks like. It’s a surprising amount of planning and preparation!

Step 2: Fail Now it is unfortunately possible, that despite your best efforts you still fail. Happens to the best of us. This step can take many shapes and forms. You can fail by a little bit, or be way off. Whatever the case, you are going to have to go through steps 3-5 if you would like to fail properly.

Step 3: Emote Failing does not feel nice. It often triggers secondary emotions such as shame and embarrassment and more primal emotions such as sadness and anger. Whatever your experience, don’t suppress it. As uncomfortable as it is, this is a process that is important to go through. Your emotions will show you what it is that is bothering you the most with regards to your failure. Feelings of embarrassment might become more specific over time and indicate that the reason you felt so embarrassed is because you were the only one that failed, and you have a deep longing to belong to the group in front of which you failed. Or, you are experiencing anger because deep-down you have realized that the plan you built wasn’t going to work, and you have forced yourself into an impossible situation. That’s ok. The emotions that are experiencing during this step lay the foundation for the next step.

Step 4: Reflect When emotions have calmed down, and our headspace has cleared, it is time to buckle down and start reflecting. We have to ask ourselves: “what actually did go wrong? Why did I fail?” This step can bring back some of the emotions that had been experienced immediately after the failure occurred, and can be quite unpleasant as a result. Another reason people don’t like reflection is because it forces us to admit to the fact that we were wrong, or at least made a mistake of some sorts. It’s not great to have to admit that anyone, least yourself. Thing is, without this step, improvement is quite hard. You have to figure out what exactly went wrong. Because re-trying without any type of reflection won’t lead to a different outcome. You are very likely to fail over and over again, become frustrated and give up without any type of achievement. Given that you even try again after the first time you have failed.

Reflection is important. It’s the ultimate learning experience. Instead of breaking apart what you are feeling as we did in step 3, let’s break apart the actual experience of the failure. You tried. What exactly did you try? What was the plan of attack? Would it have mattered if you had started earlier, done more, worked with different smaller goals etc. etc. If it’s not the process of preparation and the plan itself, look at the moment of failure itself. What mindset were you in? Were you too confident, or too insecure? How could having a different mindset have impacted

Sometimes when we compartmentalize the experience of failure itself, we realize that – in hindsight- our plan would never have led to success anyway. It can be a great relief to admit to yourself that it wasn’t (just) you. You don’t suck as a person. You just needed a different plan.

It can be something even simpler. You could have been trying to run a marathon, and you have prepared yourself for over a year for it. You have trained and practiced. You know you can do it. But then three days before the actual marathon you get food poisoning. On the day of the actual marathon you still feel weak. Your body is not in its best shape. It might not be possible for you to finish or even do the marathon. Sometimes it’s just bad luck holding you back. That happens too.

Step 5: Retry Whether it was bad luck, a shitty situation or just a bad starting plan, once you have figured out what went wrong, you can try again. Armed with a new plan (there is only a limited amount of control you have over luck and situations occurring), we try again. With the right preparation and the right mindset. As things stand now, you are more likely to succeed than you were before. However, it is still absolutely possible that this attempt will also fail. Again, you should go through the five step process. Having tried, failed, experienced emotion, reflected on the process and retried. However, sometimes you find yourself completely stuck. You have gone through the scenario over and over again. You have retried over and over again. Initially you might have gone at it alone, then asked close friends and family for help and maybe even looked into professional help. If it still won’t work out, maybe it’s time to look into step 6. Which might not always apply.

Step 6: Let go This is a nice optional step. It ties in with the article I wrote on “struggle porn.” Sometimes things just aren’t going to work out for you, no matter how hard you have tried. Success is not fully correlated with skill, motivation and effort put in. A lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Or luck if you will. So if you do fail, over and over again, sit down and reflect whether this is really for you, without beating yourself up too much. Another important part of failing properly is knowing when you’ve tried enough times to let it go.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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