Cafe Witness

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Failure Junkies

How often do you come SO CLOSE to what you want to accomplish... only to let it slip away?

Not that you meant to fail. You just didn't plan properly. Or you forgot an element of the process. Or you misunderstood the directions. Or you overslept.

If this happens to you once or twice, it's an aberration. If it happens enough that it becomes synonymous with your personality, it's a problem.

Some people might call this kind of chronic shortfall "self-sabotage" -- a fear of success. I'd counter that argument: it's not fear of success that sends people stumbling en route to the finish line; it's complacency with failure.

Simply put, if you fail often enough, you learn how to do it really well. You subconsciously understand how NOT to get the job done. And that kind of perpetual second (or third, or thirtieth) place finish becomes a bizarre version of a safety blanket.

Once you learn how to handle failure, you realize it's not so bad. Once you fail enough, you realize it might not even matter.

Sure, you're not planning to fail, but you're not necessarily concerned about winning either. Because you know failing won't kill you, and -- in a best case scenario -- it might even allow you to prolong your current lifestyle, which you've become accustomed to.

In short, you've become a failure junkie.

I understand this kind of behavior because I live it more often than I'd like to admit. Odds are, so do you.

So, what do we do about it?

The first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem...

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  • While it might be easy to include myself in this category - I'm going to prefer to characterize my current situation as one of "Just haven't had the first payout success yet".

    I totally understand your blog post - I've even read about that subject in the past.

    For a long time, I thought that perhaps that is what I was doing, but each day dozens of little projects inch ever forward towards completion.

    So, I think as long as that is taking place, then at least I continue to try.

    But then again - even though we LOVE to talk about how busy we are - couldn't we all really do just a little bit more?


    By Anonymous Michael Bailey, at 7:33 PM  

  • If you start from a place where failure is your worst fear, you are doomed. In fact we are *all* doomed to fail. Well, at some point.

    Management guru Tom Peters goes so far as to say "fail early and fail often" because it means you are striving.

    Or at least that's his philosophy. In my experience learning the lesson that some degree of failure is inevitable CAN lead to an overly-comfy relationship with non-success.

    Sadly, conquering that fear does not guarantee future success. It is still up to you (us) to learn the habits of success.

    If only it were as simple as asking Jason Calacanis (or Jeff Pulver) to show you the secret handshake!

    By Anonymous Kevin Kennedy-Spaien, at 7:43 PM  

  • I had a real problem with chronic failing to fully complete projects. Getting projects 98% finished, and then coming short at the end. A lot of this changed after law school; the rest changed after I finally got diagnosed with ADHD and realized that was part of the problem as well.
    Sometimes it's not a moral failing, but one of prioritization, foresight and learning to maintain focus, even when you feel other things pulling you off course. And it's amazing once you figure out how good success can actually feel- it starts to compund on itself, and things take a huge turn for the better.
    Have you ever tried Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way"? This is one of the best things I've ever done to get myself really on track.

    By Blogger wsh1266, at 7:45 PM  

  • i would agree with your points, Justin and add, along the lines of manifesting our dreams, that with our comfort in where we are, subconsciously we don't actually expect ourselves to succeed and subsequently keep ourselves in this limbo position without attaining the goal

    By Anonymous Sarah Atwood, at 7:52 PM  

  • Michael: Inching forward is a good thing. But leaps and bounds are a great thing. I think each of us can starting striding a bit wider toward our goals...

    Kevin: Learning from failure is a good thing. Ensuring we don't repeat those mistakes is a different lesson altogether.

    Whitney: I've seen "The Artist's Way" on shelves for years but never picked it up. I should give it a read.

    Sarah: Agreed. It can be so alien to actually conceive of a future in which we get what we want. I wonder if it's a matter of personal adaptation or societal preprogramming that causes us to so firmly doubt our own abilities.

    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 7:59 PM  

  • Yes, I used to think what Kevin was joking about. The proverbial, "If only someone would pay for this project and I could get it out there".

    As the years have gone by, I have come to accept that all of the success stories start out the same.

    Formula 409 - 408 other ones didn't work.

    Kentucky Fried Chicken - the Colonial himself used to walk door -to-door trying to get someone to buy his "secret recipe".

    Einstein himself went to his death-bed trying to prove the "Universal Field Theory"...hmm, okay, scratch that one.

    So, overall, the stories all have similar settings.

    I haven't ever heard of a story which went something like, "I just tried X and it worked, then I got rich."

    /sidebar/ I know a lot of people who are caught up in asking questions - trust me on this one - you already know the answers. Stop looking for another example of what you are thinking where it already worked. Trust in your abilities and take the steps to make it happen.

    You don't need to be amazing to beat out 95% of the population.

    By Anonymous Michael Bailey, at 8:27 PM  

  • Give any project enough time and the success will come. Much like Michael already said, sometimes it's inches, sometimes it's miles. But it's shortsighted to call a project a failure without giving it a life, legs to grow, and time to travel. So if you think a project is a failure, get a long/bigger yardstick.

    Or consider that the failure still is an education that you can apply to the next opportunity... That eventually you'll learn enough and become nimble enough to recognize opportunity and not fail at attempting to achieve it.

    Alot of measuring success requires more time then the "project debriefing" to really comprehend.

    2 years ago I attempted a record label and it ended up loosing a lot to it. Was that a failure?

    At the time it felt like I failed, and my bank loans aren't getting any smaller. But now I don't think so... I got a hard quick education on the value of the Internet and have applied what I learned to my current projects. Projects that are on track to being successful.

    I could've thrown more at my last "failed" project, but I (like everyone) hit that wall when enough was enough. 2nd was all it was worth, and the hassle of 1st place was more then I was willing to push for.

    Give any project enough time... you'll be able to see it to a success. But if I you boxed it away, and never examines it for it's success, as well as it's issues, you're probably doomed to repeat the mistakes again. You have to fail a lot to start to fail less. It's a language, it's a study, it's like being an athlete, or an artisan.

    Just a matter of putting in the time and sticking to it... regardless of the highs or lows.. eventually it gets easier.

    By Anonymous Vergrel Evans, at 9:57 PM  

  • I like to think of failure as a bunch of little acts of laziness culminating in a colossal event of failure. Failing to take the lead in little projects for yourself or others can lead to the failure of a big project...or your current place of employment. Since my psyche likes to assign blame of the "little acts" to the cyclicality of personality - I strive to catch myself up in commitments to others to counteract that cyclicality: podcasting with others, teaching a tai chi class, going to work daily, directing a sitcom - all of these work as counteragents in the overall gameplan to achieve a modicum of success! Some can sit and "create" toward a goal - I cannot - I create "external" forces of pressure to force myself to marshal my skills/capabilities toward a positive outcome. So, while I may fail in certain time investments, others are working down other avenues towards success. :-)

    By Blogger Alex, at 9:28 AM  

  • Interestingly, Seth Godin's new book The Dip (haven't read it yet) is all about evaluating when to walk away from a project and when to stick.

    By Anonymous Kevin Kennedy-Spaien, at 11:18 AM  

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