December 2021

Failing without failing

A mindful reframing of failure

This year I set a goal of writing and publishing on a consistent basis, and yet I’ve only managed to publish two essays. In fact, this is the fourth one I’ve started writing, without finishing, since I last published over three months ago. Writing is an entirely different kind of creative challenge than I’m used to, and sometimes I feel like the fruits of my effort are nothing short of rotten failures. I often have to remind myself that failure is inevitable on the path to success, and that learning to embrace failure is a critical skill for personal growth.

Reacting to failure

In our society, failure is discouraged and often looked down upon, so a natural response is to feel bad. Instead of using our energy to learn from the experience, our inner dialogue turns negative and critical. But as humans we will necessarily avoid feeling bad, so rather than helping us improve, this kind of reaction is counterproductive. It discourages us from putting forth any effort in the future while encouraging us to retreat into our comfort zone and to avoid putting ourselves in any position where there’s a possibility of failure.

For me, I’ll catch a stray thought about working on my writing, but in the next moment I’ll find myself on something else entirely. It gets to a point where I’m so dissatisfied that I can’t even entertain the thought of revisiting that essay that I’ve been tinkering on for weeks. And it only gets worse the more unfinished drafts I pile up.

Looking at failure in a different light

Everything is relative to our point of view and being successful depends on the ability to flexibly adjust our perspective. If our view is too myopic and we are too caught up in the negative then we will only see failure and loss. If we broaden our perspective, however, then we can see opportunities for learning and growth. We can investigate failure from a positive angle, for example, by asking questions like:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • What went well?
  • Can I identify any specific obstacles?
  • What part of my process can I change?

So even though I’ve failed to publish anything in the past three months, I have put effort in, and that’s worth something. It’s allowed me to flesh out some of these ideas and to refine my understanding of them. With regard to obstacles and process, I’ve noticed a tendency to get overwhelmed by all the different directions I can take an idea. I’m learning to define and limit the scope of my writing, and to spend time wallowing in the complexity, because that builds familiarity, and familiarity gives rise to clarity.

Reinforcing new perspectives

Formal mindfulness is a powerful way to condition this shift in perspective. In mindfulness of breath, the practice is to maintain one’s moment to moment attention on the sensation of breathing. It’s common for beginners to become frustrated by the difficulty of this simple practice. They believe their inability to do so is a failure, and often give up practicing entirely.

But mindfulness teaches us that a wandering and unruly mind is part of the human experience. In practice it’s encouraged to feel a sense of delight the moment you realize you’re distracted, because in that moment of catching yourself, you’re present. And that’s entirely the point! That moment also presents the opportunity to condition a more skillful, nonjudgmental response and to begin to extinguish the typical, often negative, reactivity we’re used to.

This seemingly mundane practice, of concentration on the breath, can be profoundly transformative. It helps open our eyes to possibilities, to new perspectives, that we would have otherwise missed due to our ingrained reactivity and shortsighted fixation on failure.

Similarly, in our daily life we can find ourselves distracted, failing to live into our values and struggling to follow through our goals. But rather than wallowing in disappointment and turning to avoidance, we can invite that same sense of delight, recognizing that it is this moment and this moment alone that we have to exercise our agency, and to respond in a new way rather than fall into our usual reactions.

So whether I’ve been distracted for a few minutes on the cushion, or a few months with my writing, I know that right now is the time to reorient and double down on my efforts. It starts with simply bringing my attention to what is actually happening in this moment, outside of my inner critic’s thoughts about my effort and judgments about the fruits of that effort.

Appreciating the process

The path to success isn’t linear. It’s messy, and fraught with obstacles, traps, and dead ends. We can take one step forward only to take two steps back. As much as we want it to be true, we just can’t expect to win all of the time. Fortunately the converse is also true, and even though sometimes it might feel like it, we simply can’t be losing all of the time. Again, it’s a matter of perspective.

I’ve been practicing formal mindfulness for years and I still had to write this essay as a reminder to myself. It took many years, perhaps a lifetime of negative conditioning to become who I am today so to expect to change that in days, months, or even a few years is simply unrealistic. With this understanding it becomes apparent that the old cliché is true, that the journey really is more important than the destination.

I know that it will take time for me to become comfortable writing and publishing, but as long as I’m intentional about entertaining new perspectives, and be mindful of my inner critic, it doesn’t have to be a struggle.

I can see now that the fruits of my effort haven’t been just rotten failures, perhaps I was just picking them too soon. In any case, they’ve definitely become fertilizer for this essay right here, which from my perspective looks plenty ripe enough for publishing.