Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Winners Fail

“If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.”*

I used to be terrified of failure. Failure seemed to me to be a dead end. A desert. An empty hollow place surrounded by sterility. It’s not. Failure is actually an environment that can be filled with hope and opportunity. Because the moment we realize we have failed, in that moment of realization, is the beginning of something new, and something better, but if and only if we change.

What’s worse than failure is moving on the road to failure and not knowing it. Failure is useful when we see it as a meaningful message. A simple message saying: Don’t do that. Or: If you do that, this happens.

Two of my greatest failures, in my opinion, were the two Ironman triathlon races I trained for. They were failures especially in terms of the personal cost involved. Both times I overdid the training, I remember some 170km+ cycling days in extreme heat and humidity (in both years) that broke my body. I became sick with 2-3 weeks to go before race day two years in a row. That was after paying thousands of Rands for airfares, entry fees, and equipment. Far worse were the hours and energies invested – months and months – of training and toil in sometimes very stressful conditions.

But it was only after the second failure that I knew I needed to change my whole psychology, or not even try. I needed to wake up, and get a clear grasp on what I was doing. Not plan, put my head down and then emerge after all the hard work. I had to maintain concentration, attention, and focus on what I was doing it throughout the exhaustion, throughout the process.

Thus I approached my training with less obsessive dedication and more present minded enjoyment. Success for me was built into the training journey. I began to see that the training was its own reward – not only the race at the end of it. Guess what? I got sick again, but recovered quickly and kept an open mind, and when race day dawned, well, I felt like a million bucks. I’m not sure if that day would have happened had it not been for the two ‘failures’, the two stepping stones that went before.

We seem to go through life taught to avoid mistakes, but you know, if you rush into life, if you engage as much as you can, you quickly learn how to be effective, you quickly learn what works, you learn what you are capable of, what the limits are, what you can do well and what you can’t. We waste so much time agonizing over small details, living our scenarios in our minds instead of living them out in reality.

Steve Jobs dropped out of university, but while he was there he took a course in calligraphy. Yes, one could say Jobs’ university career was a failure. But Jobs was the first to apply various fonts (learned in calligraphy classes) to his word-processing software on his Apple computers.

Everywhere we go we are learning new skills, but only if we see it that way. The tragedy is when we cast away the vital information imbedded in the University of Failure. There are so many life skills there, and we tend to dismiss them or forget about them because they make us feel bad, they hurt our fragile egos.

If you’re unwilling to allow yourself to make mistakes, then you’re not going to experience much growth or vitality in your life. This applies to all sorts of everyday scenarios in life, from meeting people, to experimenting with ideas, and especially to taking risks. Taking a risk means doing anything you’re afraid to do, and it’s those things you are most afraid to do that you know you must do. Risks with the opposite sex (and I mean healthy risks, for example calling someone you like, or getting married orbreaking up when you know you must), and risks associated with investing our energies in something challenging, like sport, or adventure or making partner (or saving your first R100 000) in 5 years.

When I failed to race in the second Ironman I’d entered, I was very nearly defeated by that. It just seemed too much to have to commit all those energies and expenses all over again. I had to find a way to my real motives, and not force myself to adopt a goal just because I knew I should. There were a few days when I felt I just couldn’t come up with the good a third time, and I lived with that ambivalence for a while, not judging it, just going: okay, so what if I don’t do that, is that something I’m prepared to live with?
I took some time out and asked: “Why is this important to me?” Once I’d found real reasons why I wanted to be out there doing, I had to make sure I avoided the same mistakes. So I asked myself: How did you fail?

I went over my training logs and I found the exact dates and workouts and stressful encounters that caused the breakdown. I saw that even though I could identify these single events, they were preceded by long periods of strain. And I also saw that I often compressed heavy workloads into short periods. All these training habits had to be avoided if I was going to be third time successful (as opposed to merely lucky).

To avoid failure focus on the following: How can you do things differently (to the things you and others have done in the past, things that have not worked), and find different levels of success than a dual paradigm. A deeper, wider paradigm. For my Ironman goal it meant going deeper than simply: racing/finishing = success, not racing/not finishing = failure.

I built into my plan a failure clause. What to do when things unravel. How to feel if I had a puncture. I did get sick. I even got sick with a tummy bug the morning before the race. There were plenty of excuses I could have used to pull out of the competition at the last moment. A close friend decided to get married on that day and many of my friends and family would be there. But I stuck to the plan and didn’t let the obviousness of the scenario defeat me. I asked: what really counts here? And the answer was: how you feel on the day of the race, and you can only quit when you give yourself permission to quit.

Failure is an opportunity to grow. Quitting isn’t. Quitting is what losers do. Winners fail, and then bounce back stronger, better and faster. If you believe that then anything is possible.

*Marva Collins, quoted from Hal Urban’s “Life’s Greatest Lesson”

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