How Failing Might Actually Be Progress

Optimist: someone who figures that a step backward after a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a CHA-CHA. —Robert Brault

We all know how it feels to be making progress toward something that really matters to us—overcoming an addiction, improving our relationships, losing weight, etc—and then suddenly find ourselves moving backward.

You lose ten pounds only to gain five. You go two months without smoking a cigarette and then smoke three (or five or ten) in one day.

You give up coffee for a few weeks and then finally give in and drink a latte.

It can be so frustrating and demoralizing to watch all of your hard work seemingly flushed down the drain. I’ve been in this place so many times and so I know from experience it can make you feel like giving up on your goals altogether. But I’ve also learned something about this experience of failing that has been really helpful for me.

Failing is perfectly normal.

In fact, there is virtually no way around it. If you’re not failing, you’re probably not progressing as much as you think you are.

This is something I learned a few months ago from a marriage counselor.

My husband and I started going to marriage counseling sometime early last year. We started seeing her because we were fighting more than we wanted to, and every now and then our fights would turn south and we would say or do mean things. We always felt really bad about it after the fact but we couldn’t seem to curb the negative cycle.

So we decided to ask for help.

The first few months of counseling were so helpful. Within two months, we had learned enough about ourselves and our marriage and each other that our fights went from four or five per week to more like one per week—and even when we did argue, we were able to keep our cool and talk ourselves through to resolution.

It felt great. For me, it restored my faith in us as a couple and in our marriage. If I’d had any doubts before, they were all melting away. We could do this!

But then, something frustrating happened. After weeks of not having even one of our old yelling arguments, we totally slid back into that pattern. An argument started over something stupid, got out of control and ended with me leaving the house and slamming the door.

The worst part of all of this, for me, was that all the hope I had felt before—the “we can do this!” feeling—suddenly seemed to be in question. Maybe we couldn’t do this. Maybe we just weren’t meant to be married. Maybe neither of us were built for it. Maybe we were both just too selfish. Maybe we never should have gotten married in the first place…

It’s so easy to get carried away with “what ifs” when you’re failing.

The next week when we went to see our marriage counselor, we sheepishly admitted to her what had happened. And I’ll never forget what she said to us. She told us, “Oh, good. You’re failing. That means you’re making progress.”

She went on to explain how failing was a perfectly normal part of the process. Failing means you’re trying to reconcile your old way of doing things with the new one. It means you’re working to internalize the new way of thinking and existing.

Failing is actually a good thing!

This was such a relief for me to hear. Failing didn’t mean my marriage was doomed or that we were destined to fight forever. It was just a natural part of the process to my husband and I learning new ways to relate to one another. Failing was just one step in a really long process to creating a enjoyable marriage.

Since then, we’ve continued to make progress toward our goals of relating to each other in healthy ways. We’re happier than we’ve ever been—and we just keep getting happier.

Whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish—whether it’s losing weight, redirecting a relationship, reading more, complaining less—failing is a totally normal part of the process. Don’t let yourself get discouraged. Don’t get lost in the “what ifs”. Instead, make the decision to keep making steps forward, despite your setbacks.

You won’t regret it.

The Difference Between Successful People And Those Who Flounder

flounder
“Whenever you see a successful person, you only see the public glories, never the private sacrifices to reach them.” — Vaibhav Shah

Have you ever sat around wondering what the difference is between those who achieve a great deal of success in their lives versus those who just never seem to find their way?

When I’m talking about success I’m not necessarily talking about making a bunch of money or being on TV or having a million Twitter followers—although success could include any of those things. What I’m talking about is a general feeling like you’re giving the best of yourself and getting the best life has to offer.

I’m talking about happiness, laughter, fulfillment and just a general sense of peace.

I’m talking about the kind of person you would want to be your parent, your employee, your coworker or your spouse.

Anyway, I have sat around wondering what it is that makes some people happy with their lives and other people not so happy. In fact, I’ve tried to pay attention to the difference between people I meet who I would put in those different categories—mostly so I can be one of them. And here’s the thing I’ve noticed as I’ve watched.

Successful people see themselves honestly.

They’re not perfect. Not by a long shot. But they don’t try to hide or mask their imperfections or idiosyncrasies from others. In fact, they’ll be the first to admit them to you. And strangely, this seems to free them up to make even their most quirky qualities work in their favor.

Let me give you an example of this.

When I graduated from college I immediately began looking for a job. I didn’t know what I was looking for, honestly. My degree was in English and I really wanted to be a writer but was convinced I couldn’t make a living doing that. So I started tapping my networks and found out about an “Office Manager” job.

Now, I’m the last person you ever want to hire to be an office manager. First of all, I can’t even keep my own schedule straight—let alone anyone else’s. I’m famous for missing meetings or forgetting about appointments or locking my keys in my car.

Still, I swore in the interview I could do it. I had to do it, I figured.

What other options did I have?

Long story short, about six months into the job my boss and I were both realizing I wasn’t good at it. In fact, I was less than good at it. I was awful. They would have been better off with no office manager and I’m not exaggerating.

But I felt stuck. What was I supposed to do? If I lost this job, I would not only be a failure, I would also be in a real financial bind.

So I kept promising I would get better.

I worked harder and longer hours. I stayed late. I came early. And when things would go wrong in the office, I would try to think of reasons for the mistake that didn’t have to do with me. I don’t even think I realized I was doing it but I was so terrified to get fired, you guys. I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure that didn’t happen.

It didn’t happen. I didn’t get fired. But my boss did become more and more infuriated with me. As a result, I became less and less engaged with the work, more and more self-conscious about my strengths and gifts, less and less motivated and more and more enraged with my work environment. It all felt so toxic.

Finally, about 12 months in, I threw in the towel.

I sat down with my boss and was brutally honest. “I just don’t think I’m built for this job,” I told him. “I’m not doing a good job. I”m making everyone’s life harder—including mine—and I’m sorry.” As I said it, I could tell something shifted for him.

A guy who had been really frustrated with me moments earlier suddenly became my biggest ally. He asked me what I was going to do next and offered to help in any way he could. He told me he would give me a reference.

“How could you possibly offer to give me a reference when I’ve been so terrible at this?” I asked.

“Hey—at least you were honest.”

It was a moment of terrible failure for me and also shining glory, in a way—that moment I finally decided to be honest about myself and with him. There would be other jobs for me, better jobs, more fulfilling and less taxing jobs in my future, as soon as I could finally admit the truth about myself and to others.

This is all easier said than done—so how do you actually do this?

These days in my life I do everything I can to be as honest with myself, and with the people around me, as possible, if only because I’ve seen what a difference it can make. But the honestly certainly doesn’t come easily.

It can be hard to see ourselves in a truthful light. It can be even harder to admit what we see to other people.

That said, there are three tools I use to help me accomplish this objective:

Friendships: There are things we can’t see about ourselves that our friends can see about us. I’ve found my friends are happy to fill in the blank spots in my own self-perceptions if I ask them to. If you’re curious how you come across to other people, ask your friends: what are my greatest strengths? What areas can I work on?

Humility: It can feel painful to hear the truth about ourselves, especially when that truth is unpleasant. Your tendency might be to push the responsibility off of yourself, like I did when I was an office manager, or to reject it altogether. But if you can humbly receive the feedback you’re given from those you trust, I promise you the results will be worth it.

Coaching: There are some things even our friends can’t see about us but that we need to know if we’re going to achieve our best life possible. For those things, I’ve tried to be intentional about inviting coaches into my life. Coaching takes many different forms: teachers, professors, counselors, professional coaches, life coaches, etc. Whatever form it takes, make sure you take advantage of those who can see you most clearly.

[photo: grinapple, Creative Commons]

Discouragement Is A Natural Part of Accomplishing Goals

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“Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” — Dale Carnegie

This is the time of year when discouragement usually sets in. Not only is it Winterpocalypse outside—dark, dreary, icy, impossible to drive. It’s also just far enough into the calendar year that most of our resolutions have fallen out of our conscious mind and into that place where dreams go to die.

We’re hitting the snooze button instead of going to the gym.

We’re scheduling happy hour instead of working on that creative project.

We’re watching TV instead of reading those books we swore we’d read.

Let me tell you something that I hope will make you feel a little bit better about this, if it sounds like the place you’re in: this is totally normal. In fact, if you didn’t experience this part of the process toward achieving your goals, you should be asking yourself: when is it coming? It’s really not a matter of if, but when.

Unrealistic Expectations

Part of the problem is we start off with what are probably unrealistic expectations.

This is what happened to me when I first quit my full time job to achieve my lifelong goal of writing a book several years ago. I was keeping a blog and I assumed—if I did my very best writing—somewhere along the way a publisher or an agent would “discover” me and be so impressed with my work, they would practically beg me to sign a book deal.

Because I was wholeheartedly convinced of this, I quit my full-time job, sold pretty much everything I owned, packed what was left into my Subaru Outback and set off on a year-long journey across the country. I figured taking such a huge leap would help me get noticed, it would make publishers or agents take me really seriously.

Of course it was a big sacrifice—but it would be worth it, I told myself as soon as I got that book deal.

That logic fueled me for awhile. It was the motivation I needed to sell the things I really didn’t want to sell, to leave my secure job, etc. The problem came when I came home from my journey without a place to live or any furniture or a job and I still didn’t have a book deal.

Discouragement Sets In

This was when the discouragement set in for me.

Everything I had given up had been worth it if I got a book deal. But was it worth it if I didn’t get a book deal? I wasn’t sure it was—so I found myself in a very dark place after my trip. My expectations for the trip hadn’t been met and I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. There was no going back. What was I supposed to do now?

It wasn’t until I shared my fear with a good friend of mine that she helped me reframe my discouragement in a way that was really helpful.

First of all, she told me it was normal to feel discouraged as we’re fighting our way to the goals that are really important to us. She said it was fine to feel disappointed, that was normal even, and that she understood the discouragement. Let me be the one to say that for you now, if you’re in a place of discouragement.

Discouragement Is Normal

Discouragement is normal. Everyone feels it. There’s nothing wrong with you.

Second, she pointed out that part of why I was feeling discouraged was because of the unrealistic expectation I had of getting a book deal. “So you didn’t get a book deal,” she told me. “But you got a bunch of other stuff—and you’re missing it—all because you’re so focused on what you originally wanted.”

At first I didn’t understand what she was saying, so I asked her to clarify.

“You’re a totally different person than you were when you left,” she said. “You’re less afraid, more willing to take risks. Think of all the people you met and all the things you got to see. Think of the stories you’ll tell to your children or your grandchildren. You can’t put a price tag on any of that.”

“So you didn’t get a book deal,” she said. “You found yourself.”

That was really helpful for me. Because I realized that if I had to choose between getting a book deal or finding myself, finding myself was clearly the more valuable of the two. I didn’t want to miss the truly valuable thing I received simply because I didn’t get what I thought I would get.

The Wisdom Of Open Hands

If you’re fighting your way toward a goal, I want to pass this wisdom on to you.

Not only is discouragement a totally normal part of the process, but one of the ways we can fight against the discouragement is to remind ourselves that what we think we are going to get when we begin a journey isn’t necessarily what we get—and that’s not a bad thing.

When we live our lives with open hands, we will experience loss, but we are also postured for incredible gain.

Additionally, without trying to talk yourself out of the discouragement, remind yourself that where you end up will have a lot to do with how you respond to disappointments and loss. I did eventually get the book deal I had hoped for so desperately. It didn’t come as easily, or as soon, as I hoped it would.

But I never would have gotten it if I had let my discouragement get the best of me. Discouragement will come and go, but if you keep pressing toward your goals, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

[Photo: Jan Tik, Creative Commons]