Failure is an Opportunity, Not An Identity

It’s a rainy day on the first of the month and I’m sitting here writing about failure, and I couldn’t be more optimistic about the whole thing.

Allow me to set the scene. I set a personal goal to accomplish a weekly writing at the start of the year. The reason I challenged myself to pursue this project was to apply some of the classic “practice makes better” methodology to writing that has historically served me — and, I have heard, others! — so well in my design, illustration, social interactions, etc.

Yet, here at the outset of March, I have to confess that February was a bit of a bust in the consistency department. Seriously. It wasn’t my original plan to skip a month and then write this piece...but, you know, call me an opportunist! Which, spoiler alert, I'm getting ahead of myself. 

In most circumstances, consistency-failure can be hugely demotivating. Getting back on track becomes nigh impossible, as the typical excuses come creeping in: I’m too far off track. Playing catch-up isn’t worth it. I should just pretend this was never a thing and hopefully there’s nobody who notices and also this is not a conversation I’m having with myself because what am I even talking about that’s right be cool man.

Such a cacophony of quit-positive whispers is a familiar chorus to me, having made appearances at the wakes of too many once-noble pursuits of discipline. There goes eating well! Budgeting! Journaling! Relational followups that don’t require “it’s been too long” as an opener!

It’s easy to ditch a thing when you fail at it, because it is painful to confront your shortcomings. The situation suggests, rather depressingly, that you are the weakest link in your own goal strategies. And, to a certain extent, that is true.

But one grand lesson the past few years have taught me is that this type of failure, this type of falling off the proverbial consistency wagon, is never lacking the proverbial lining of silver in the proverbial failure cloud, nor without the proverbial ability to hoist oneself back into said wagon. Sure, the chain of success has been broken, the grand ambitions have been dampened — but all is not lost.

I’ve boiled down my thoughts on failure into a dandy little lettering design of which I am particularly fond, which comprises the header for this post: Failure is an opportunity, not an identity. Or, in other words:

You are not defined by the messes you make. But you are given a chance to redefine yourself with each one, and with how you choose to respond to it.

I don’t think you can really exhaustively discuss all the ways that failure is an opportunity. I’ve chosen a small handful of them to go over briefly, in ‘X rather than Y’ form. 
(It should be noted that since “opportunity” is the functional word, both X and Y in each of these are potential responses to failure, where I think X is superior in all cases.) 

  • Failure is an opportunity to learn accurate truths about yourself, rather than reinforce false notions of yourself. Sometimes the false notion is that you have exactly what it takes to accomplish any self-defined challenge with ease. This is frequently wrong. What is needed, then, is a sense of your strengths and weaknesses, your patterns and pitfalls, your salves and stressors. A nice big failure will reveal these to you fairly clearly if you’re willing to step back and consider.

  • …to practice actual humility, rather than false modesty. It is easy to say “I’m not that great!” when you are feeling like you are, in fact, kind of that great. It is much harder to acknowledge “I am not as amazing as I thought!” when you do something that confirms you are not as amazing as you thought.
    A slip up in goals often forces you to confront the reality of your capabilities and shortcomings. I think that’s the definition of humility - not to hold a wrongly negative view of yourself, but an honest view. Accepting your shortcomings and choosing to work on what you can improve means you’re actively on a path to progress. Ignoring or denying the source of your failures, conversely, is a surefire way to perpetuate the vicious cycle.

  • …to reach out rather than collapse inward. This works in at least two ways.

The first way is inward-out, or knowledge sharing. A failure properly considered is accompanied by a lesson. Such lessons become valuable nuggets of experiential wisdom that can, and should, be shared with the world. That doesn’t always require an extravagantly long blog post (sorry, sorry) — but it does mean populating an anecdotal mental arsenal that can connect you to others and aid them in similar occasions. 

The second way is outward-in, or a pursuit of external change factors. If you identify a clear pattern of inability to succeed in an area, the solution almost always must come from without. Think personal trainers, financial advisors, nutritionists, planning gurus: sometimes the impetus for progress needs to come from an external source. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to develop a self-continuing mechanism, but this regularly requires a jumpstart from someone who’s been there, done that. Other times, it even just takes someone reminding you of what you already know.

  • …to amend rather than abandon. In most cases, all it takes to achieve success after failure is revision. Redefine the goal and the approach, instead of discarding the pursuit wholesale. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Which brings us back to me and the particular failure that spawned this piece: the weekly-write. I’ve decided that the practice is too valuable to toss out, but my own parameters were setting me up to fail.

I’ve learned better what motivates me and empowers my creativity on a tight schedule. I thrive on variety, but suffer without some form of concrete structure. I value novelty and pushing my own limits, but when there are too many options, I flounder. Consequently, I’m opting to establish a theme for each month, the challenge being to create four pieces of writing under that heading for the month. (March's theme, as will soon become apparent, is Mystery.)

To bring this all to an abrupt and hurriedly poignant close: it’s too easy and too harmful to let failure work its way into our identities. Let’s flip the narrative, making it function not as a badge of shame but rather a bridge to a clearer, more successful story.

- dan

(Also, I recently hit the 33k milestone on my 'gram, so as a reward for reading this far, use the code 33THANKS for 33% off any order in the store! And if you like what I’ve had to say, as well as the novel idea of having FAILURE plastered across your chest, well…there’s a tee for that!)