Everyone Falls, But Some People Roll into it
Failure is not a word I particularly like. For a while I used it and attempted to rehabilitate it, turn it into a word that meant something that one could learn from. I would talk about smart failures vs dumb failures but even then I felt that somehow I was missing something. After all, can we always know if a so called failure is going to be dumb or smart? And is a dumb failure really always obviously worthless before the fact?
The idea of dumb/smart failures was enticing. A smart failure happens when you set something up such that if you fail you will know why. This becomes a learning opportunity and you can avoid the same mistakes in the future. This is a valuable concept. But it’s not perfect. Unless you can control for all confounding factors you cannot be absolutely certain about what you have and haven’t learned from any outcome. Only through repeated smart failures can you achieve anything close to certainty. And that’s not something anyone in business tends to want to do.
Dumb failure, on the other hand, are supposed to be failures wherein you don’t control the scenario and thus cannot learn from what has happened or, alternatively, scenarios where you should have foreseen the problem beforehand. A dumb failure, the theory goes, teaches us nothing. But is that really true? Surely at the least a dumb failure provides an opportunity to consider why we didn’t see it coming!
So, while in theory dumb and smart failures are easy to tell apart, in practice things aren’t so simple. Again we find ourselves facing a complex system of u intended consequences. We can try to work smart and avoid obvious errors but we will, in the end, all face failures of varying smartness and dumbness. The blacks and white has become a foggy grey.
In such a universe, as imperfect beings filled with some measure of error and weakness alongside the virtue and strength, I find the very idea of failure on a personal level less than useful. In the end, a failure is just information. And information needs no pejorative term.
The Hard Part
Which is where I come to the hard part. Falling down is part of life. But, as the old saying goes, it’s not the fall, it’s the landing that hurts. And while some people seem to fall and land in a crumpled heap, unable to rise, others seem to have found a way to roll into it and spring back up, almost as if nothing had happened at all. Learning to do this is hard. But it can be done. Here I offer some exercises that can help.
Exercise: the give/get of kindness
They say we are our own harshest critic, which is true for everyone other than Donald Trump, but usually we’re similarly judgemental about others even if in a less overt way.
Falling and rolling into it is, in part, about what you believe you deserve. If you believe that failures should be seen as shameful you’re likely to fall in a crumpled heap because, dammit, that’s what you get for being so useless! Being hard on yourself is a mental pattern, a habit you’ve picked up. It can be unlearned.
But it’s hard to be nice to yourself, so how can we work up to it? We begin by being kind to others.
This exercise begins in our minds. First bring to mind a mistake or error made by someone easy to forgive. Maybe a child. Remember that moment and the error that was made. The failure. Now picture that person and, in your mind, tell them that it’s OK. Tell them that mistakes happen. Mean it.
Remember to hold love in your mind as you do this. Not a romantic love or a passionate love, simply the love that wishes for the best for others. Tell this person that it’s OK. Tell them that life goes on. That nobody is perfect.
Notice how that feels. Is it freeing? Do you feel uplifted by this? Or is it uncomfortable and stressful? Whatever the case, don’t judge it. Accept it and move on.
You can repeat this step as often as you like. But each time try to move up a rung in the difficulty ladder. It is easy to forgive someone who is young, who maybe didn’t hurt you directly. What about someone who “should know better”? Notice that should word? Yeah. It’s always sneaking around. What about someone hurt you recently? The driver who hit your car or the friend who forgot your birthday.
Bring them to mind. Feel it, picture it. Then forgive them and mean it. The more you do this the easier you will find it. You’ll begin to notice yourself doing it almost without trying to. Acceptance and forgiveness will seem as if they are hard wired into your brain. Here’s the cool part: they are.
Reframing is a powerful tool. At first it can feel almost like cheating but as soon as you accept that we do not live in an objective reality, that most of what we consider truth is actually opinion, then you can see how reframing is simply replacing one subjective idea with another.
Consider the same people who you visualised in Step 1 or use different examples. Now, we again begin by visualising. But this time instead of forgiving we reframe. Did someone fail their driving test? Perhaps this can be reframed as a good thing! After all, the important thing is to be safe on the roads and this test is about making sure you will be. Now, when you do qualify, you’ll know you’re really ready.
Reframing is in the hard, not complicated club. The hard part here is developing the mental flexibility to reframe things well and authentically. This isn’t about lying to yourself and others, it’s about realising that, as The Bard himself opined, others is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
You will be surprised how quickly you begin to reframe effortlessly. Like acceptance and forgiveness, your reframing muscles are now fully pumped and ready to go, your mental circuits that deal with emotional flexibility are primed.
Now it’s time to go outside.
Now we move on to the world outside your head. We learned in Step 1 that we can find a way to accept and forgive the failures of almost anyone if we try hard enough. In Step 2 we discovered that once reframing is a habit it becomes almost effortless. Now it’s time to road test these newly refined skills.
Firstly, be aware of and open to times when people are being self critical. Notice phrases like “I always do this!” or “This is so like me, I’m such an idiot”. As well as more subtle examples such as people apologising too much over something small or overcompensating for minor errors.
Now apply the same acceptance, love and forgiveness to them as you did in your visualisations. Tell them it’s OK to make mistakes and that they can’t expect to be perfect. If the mistake directly harmed you, make sure they know that you forgive them and believe in them. That you hold no grudge. Mean it.
Further, if someone complains to your directly about their own failures, apply the same reframing techniques. But here it is important to always ask for permission to reframe. This might seem strange at first but simply by saying “do you mind if I help you look at this a little differently?” or a similar phrase, you can ensure you’re not blundering into a pity party that you’re not really invited to. Sometimes people need to let off steam and a little bit of self pity can be cathartic. The problem arises when it goes on too long.
Here’s a take home coaching tip! Never try to change something that someone doesn’t want to change. As basic as that sounds, it’s amazing how often people forget to apply this. Always get permission to coach.
Keep doing this alongside the first two steps. Notice how you feel when doing it. Notice how others respond. You’re likely to find that it starts to feel natural. Well done. You’ve successfully built up your kindness muscles.
So… What About Me?!
Right now you might be wondering how all this being kind to others is going to help you to fall and roll into it. The beautiful part of all of this is that there’s no special change needed to apply this same kindness to yourself. Those kindness muscles will work just as well for your own falls as for those of others.
Keep practicing the visualisations, the acceptance and the reframing for others and when the moment comes that you fall, you’ll be amazed by how differently you feel about it and how much more rapidly you get back up.