How to Keep Failure From Ruining Your Day

Recently I slept through my alarm and missed a flight.

If I’d spent time to think about it rationally, I would have realized it wasn’t that big of a deal. I would get a flight out later in the day. but I’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, and it was an important day, and 4am is a time to day it feels hard to think rationally.

photo: Dog Mom of Five, Creative Commons
photo: Dog Mom of Five, Creative Commons

I scrambled to put my clothes on, threw my remaining things in my suitcase, and begged my husband to speed me off to the airport, but it was no use. We knew before we even got in the car that I wasn’t going to make it. And by the time we arrived at the terminal, I was in tears. My flight had already taken off.

I was upset for a variety of reasons.

I’d had the morning all planned out in my mind, first of all—how I was going to get my tea and sit peacefully at the gate and be in “Zone 1,” one of the first people on the plane. I felt so sad and immature, sleeping through my alarm clock like I was in high school again.

I worried about how much money it would cost to change the flight and felt panicked that I wouldn’t make it to my destination on time.

I felt like a total failure.

And yet, before I got out of the car, my husband grabbed by hand and looked me right in the eye and said, in his usual, nothing-phases-me voice, “Hey, you’re okay. It’s over. You’re still going to make it to your destination. Don’t let this ruin your day.”

I nodded, just praying I could actually take his advice.

I headed straight for the Delta counter and told them what had happened and they were quick to remedy the situation. They switched my flight and got me onto a flight that would land me in my destination with a minimal delay. I got through security in record time, walked to the bathroom and brushed my hair and my teeth (since I hadn’t had a chance to do that before I left the house).

That’s when I realized I had a choice to make.

My circumstances had changed. They were better. The problem had been fixed. Literally no one knew about my apparent “failure” except me and my husband. But it was like my ability to feel sadness and discouragement and shame was so learned, it was so easy for me to “get there,” that my mind and heart and spirit went there anyway.

I think of it like ski tracks going down a mountain. When the track has been made by a dozen previous runs, it’s hard to take a different path.

You get stuck (quite literally) in your own rut.

I thought about what Darrell had said.

“It’s over. Don’t let this ruin your day.”

And I thought about what my friend Mike said when he spoke at a conference recently. He said, “Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you are a mistake. Just because you failed doesn’t mean you’re a failure.”

And so instead of letting my skis point in the direction of the previous path, I chose to go a different route. It takes more strength to ski down brand new snow—you have to carve a new way—but the only other option is to keep going down that same sad, discouraging track over and over again.

And I just decided I didn’t want to do that.

I just decided I wanted that to change. So I reminded myself of a few things I knew for sure. I’m not a failure. People make mistakes. What feels like a “crisis” is rarely as tragic as it seems. I told myself not to cry. Crying wasn’t going to help anything, and there was no need. No need to be sad, no need to feel discouraged.

And just like that, my pattern changed.

Just like that, I felt the day come back, my mental clarity come back, my mood return to something resembling normal and stable.

That makes it sound easier than it was.

For the rest of the day, I was fighting that old, learned rut in the snow. I had to admit I was overreacting, that my feelings were unreliable, and that they were lying to me about the reality of this particular situation. I had to remind myself, over and over, that everything was going to be okay.

But I did it. And after you ski down a slope once, it becomes more likely you’ll land in that rut later.

Who knows. After awhile, perhaps it will even become easy.