Processing Failure

Admitting failure is the new rage. This is a good thing. However, no one really talks about how they process failure? Well, I recently failed. I submitted a proposal for a fellowship. I thought I was a competitive candidate. Turns out I was not. Here’s how I processed that failure (and other failures):

STAGE ONE: Self-Doubt (with a helping of self-pity)

I opened the email from the selection committee with confidence. However, there it was. The sentence we all dread: “We are sorry to inform you…” I stared at the computer for a bit, got up, and went outside to play with my son Dillon. We sat a few paces apart on the sidewalk in the sun and pushed his monster truck back and forth. As I was staring at Dillon, the self-destructive commentary in my head began: “What is it about my work that they do not like? What is it about me? Am I not good enough? I am not good enough.”

STAGE TWO: Anger (with some immaturity)

When my wife arrived home a half hour later, my head was hanging low. I didn’t give her much time to get settled before recounting my failure. “You know, I applied for this fellowship. I really thought I would get it. But, you know what, I did not” I said.

“What did they say?” she asked

“I don’t know…something about applying again next year. Almost every time I apply for a grant or some kind of fellowship I fail. It’s just one big waste of time. Apply again next year they say…@#%^ that! I will show them.”

STAGE THREE: Rationalization

There are three ways I rationalize failure:

1. There is always someone better.

I like this one because it keeps me humble and hungry. It is also dangerous, though. It can cripple your confidence. If there is always someone better, how can you ever win? Use this one with caution.

2. There is a communication problem.

This one is a popular one for me. Have I clearly communicated my vision, mission, objectives and my strategy for achieving those objectives? I’m not naturally good at any one of these things. So, I give myself a target for improvement.

3. There are four lights!

There is this incredible Star Trek episode in which Captain Picard is captured and held captive by the Cardassians. He is stripped down, hung naked from the ceiling by his hands, and humiliated in various ways. Overhead, there are four lights shining down on Jean Luc. His captor repeatedly asks him “How many lights are there?” Jean Luc says “There are four lights”. His captor replies “No, there are five lights” and proceeds to punish Jean Luc for incorrectly answering his question.

What is my point? All of us belong to some kind of organization. We belong to families, networks of friends, businesses, sports teams, churches, universities, and/or bowling clubs. They each have their own system of rewards and punishments with which to condition us. They condition our view of the world and our pursuit of particular types of knowledge and understandings.  Certain behaviors, choices and strategies are expected and rewarded when forthcoming. When they are not, we are punished in some manner. Maybe not torture, but we are made known of the organization’s disapproval.

I guess what I am trying to say is that sometimes it is worthwhile to take a step back and truly reflect upon who you are. What makes you unique? What is your center? What does the fire in your belly burn for?

Then turn and take a hard look at the organization that you are a part of, take a hard look at the group, collective, or cohort from which that you seek rewards and affirmation.

Does it fit?

Do they continuously tell you there are five lights when you know there are four?

When you conform, submit, and acknowledge that “Yes, there are five lights” what do you win? Who is the authority figure patting you on the back? Who is surrounding you when you win? Lastly, and maybe, most importantly, when you win, how do you win?

If you are not happy with the answers to these questions, it seems that only thing you are left with is to break away from the collective, head into the wilderness, and burn your own path through this world.

For my most recent failure, I am going with #2 and a touch of #3.

This brings me to the fourth and final stage.

STAGE FOUR: Re-birth (with a touch of attitude)

Do something with the failure. Take it, shake it, transform it, and reconstruct it. Take away its power. Put it out into the world for others to clearly see. When you are done, shrug, move on, and seek out another challenge, which is just another potential failure. Bring it on.



If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my Halftime Speeches monthly email.

Thanks. – shawn