Reclaiming failure is about owning failure – making failure work for us instead of being something to fear or avoid. By understanding how failure works, and talking through tactics for changing our relationship with failure, we can learn faster, grow more, and achieve things we might not have even attempted before.
The two minute video posted above is another great story of an athlete who fought through adversity and failure, didn’t give up, and came out on top. I wonder how many people give up just before they have that big breakthrough. Sadly, we will never know…
It’s easy to look at something like this, and misinterpret it as a call to push-push-push, to hustle without stopping – but we need to look deeper. Reclaiming failure is a more mindful process than that. Those who don’t think, who don’t rest and find some quiet, won’t be the ones standing at the end.
Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday. – Wilma Rudolph
One tactical approach to reclaiming failure is the use of visualization. Visualization is a psychological technique used in a range of different high-performance fields, from athletics to surgery. Essentially, visualization involves a focused, mental rehearsal of something you are about to do. Many visualization techniques focus on optimum performance, which focus on the feelings and specific actions that will all contribute to an ideal outcome in that situation. For example, Michael Phelps might sit in the ready room before an Olympic Final in the 200 meter butterfly (hands-down, my favorite Phelps race), his headphones on. What is likely playing on the movie screen of his mind is a first-person account of exactly what he wants to happen in that race. At Phelps’ level, it probably includes things like a specific number of kicks underwater, the exact number of strokes in each lap, and how it will feel to touch the wall first.
This type of visualization has ben proven helpful in fine tuning athletic performance, and is helpful in any type of situation when success demands a high level of precision. However, visualizing the optimum performance is just one approach. Another way we can use visualization is through the visualization of failure. Prior to engaging in a task, action or project that is important to you, a natural reaction is to avoid thinking about the worst-case outcomes. However, think about the possible benefits of engaging in not just considering the possibility of failure, but actually visualizing it.
If you can, try to spend a few minutes visualizing failure at the task in front of you. What would it feel like? What might cause the failure? How would you respond to it after the fact? How might you take action after the failure in order to recover and carry on with the work? The more detailed you can get in your visualization, the more mentally prepared you will be for your task. This sort of mental preparation can benefit you in a couple of ways: First, if something does go wrong, you will be ready. You will know what you need to do, and you won’t be surprised by the failure. Second, by examining all of the things that could go wrong, you might find yourself acting with more wisdom and better preparation in the first place, allowing you to be more successful in the short term.
Tim Ferriss has written and spoken extensively (https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/) about a process he calls Fear Setting. This process parallels visualization of fear, but takes it a step further. It asks questions like “What’s the worst that can happen?”, but also “If the worst happens, what will I do about it?” This analytical approach to understanding our own fears and failures helps us understand the nature of our fears, but also prepares us by pre-planning our own response in the case of failure. Whether by Fear Setting or through visualization, lowering the fear level around any potential failure in our future allows us to be present, focus on the task at hand, and act boldly.
I love sports. I can’t think of many other activities that test the limits of a human the way that athletic competition can. When you see someone like Mondo Duplantis set the National High School Record for pole vault at 19’1” (2017), it’s an amazing feat.
The video above is from the 2018 European Championships, but I like the slo-mo view. I love watching the sequence as he completely inverts his body, clinging to a long, skinny pole, flying almost 20 feet in the air. What an achievement. I was watching the YouTube clip of this event, and YouTube was nice enough to cue up another video when this one ended. The next video to play was a history of Mr. Duplantis’ pole vaulting career, starting at a very young age, and a very short bar . How many times do you suppose he failed to clear the bar? Just guessing – out of every attempt at a pole vault, do you think he has more successes, or more failures?
The point is this: In certain contexts and activities, failure is viewed in a much healthier way. Sports is one of those contexts, except in sports we often call it “practice”. We often say “Practice makes perfect.” without really thinking it through. Let’s unpack that for a second — if we practice (fail) enough, then we will perfect what it is we are trying to do (succeed). Every failure is an opportunity to move closer to our goal, as long as we make that failure work for us. In sports, we have managed to develop a mindset that facilitates that process. If we can develop a similar mindset in other areas of our life, then we can “practice” instead of failing and giving up.
This commercial is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a simple voiceover with footage of Michael Jordan missing shots, messing up, and blowing it. He recounts several statistics before closing with:
“I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
There is something beautiful about one of the best basketball players of all time attributing his monumental success to his many failures. I also love that he mentions the “26 times” he’s been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed, but doesn’t mention how many times he’s succeeded (I wonder which number is greater).
Surely, Jordan’s success is attributable to other things as well – talent, hard work, great coaching, and I’m sure others. However, this embodiment of the “go big or go home” mentality certainly speaks to Jordan’s willingness to engage with failure, to put himself in situations where success or failure has big consequences, and also to his bravery in the face of difficulty. Engaging with failure, or even the risk of failure, over time has the effect of making us more comfortable with the idea. If we feel brave or empowered in situations where failure is possible, then the fear of failure becomes less of an obstacle. The more we face our fear of failure, the less power failure has over us.
Perhaps Jordan’s early engagement with failure allowed him to develop a partial immunity to its effects. By engaging with failure in ways that are manageable for us, we inoculate ourselves to the effects, allowing us to grow into situations where the failure is more intimidating.