Most of us conduct our lives in a certain way simply because we are afraid of failure.
We stay in our futile, miserable jobs because to leave would mean to take a risk and possibly invite defeat. We stay with the wrong person, in the wrong city, at the wrong job because to do anything differently would disrupt our sense of security. We stay because it is safe; we stay because we are afraid, no, terrified, of failure.
But what happens when we actually do take a leap only to crash and burn?
Maybe we quit our jobs to pursue our dreams and now we’re demoralized, starving, and broke. Maybe our business folded. Maybe our dream job turned out to be a nightmare. Maybe we were idealistic but the real world has us feeling crushed.
Most of us will flinch at the thought of ever taking a risk again. And why wouldn’t we? Failure was too traumatic, too heartbreaking, too humiliating, too painful. We might want to forgo risk-taking forever. Don’t.
Risks are exhilarating because they enlarge who we are and what we think is possible.
If we refuse to take risks, if we refuse to be daring and larger, we will never learn or grow.
So how do we move past a major misstep? There is a value to making mistakes, especially in your 20s. Here are 4 ways to conquer a big-time “failure”:
1. Be aware of the “present trap”
Realize that most of us are only ever doing the best that we can. The thing about decisions is that they require us to make a choice based on the limited knowledge we have in the moment. And the moment is like a mouse trap. It snaps shut, holds us tight with its big metal jaws, and never lets us go. It confines us to the present. When we make a decision, we can peer down the road, but we can never really know where a choice might take us.
In a way, we’re like scientists. We can use research and prior knowledge to devise a hypothesis but, at the end of the day, we can only come to a conclusion after a few test runs.
Risks, and the mistakes they sometimes reveal themselves to be in retrospect, are just that: test runs. Life is an experiment. Have fun and remember: no “failure” is irreversible. Which leads us to our next point…
2. Forgive yourself
When we fail, we tend to be self-critical:
“I should have stuck it out…”
“I should have known better…”
“Should” is the cruelest, most merciless word in the English language. Like a rigid schoolmaster, “should” is stern. “Should” insists there are only 2 choices: a right one and a wrong one. We should have done A but we did B. How could we? Now we are idiots, fools, losers.
After I left what I thought was my dream job, I agonized over the decision for weeks. Had I made the “right” choice? How could I have left the steady income/security/perks behind? If I wasn’t happy teaching inner-city kids for a major non-profit organization, how would I ever be fulfilled? What the hell was I thinking?! For me, leaving represented a colossal failure.
For the better part of a month, I was convinced I had made the “wrong” choice. I kept second-guessing myself. I felt like Hamlet on steroids. So what did I learn from all my negative self-talk and nearly paralyzing indecision?
I learned that “should” is a masochistic, blood-thirsty killer.
Every time we tell ourselves we “should” have done something, we are causing ourselves unnecessary guilt. We are assaulting ourselves. “Should” loves nothing more than leaving us bloodied and battered. But can we magically time travel and alter the past? No. To think we can defies all reason (not to mention the laws of physics). “Should” is pointless. Stop obsessing about the past (even if the past was only a couple of days or weeks ago). Instead of use “should” to brutalize your already fragile self-worth, find solace in the fact that there is no such thing as a universal “right” or “wrong” answer. What others view as a “wrong” choice may very well teach us something valuable.
3. Forget other people
Fear of humiliation is a powerful emotion. In fact, fear of looking stupid keeps us from doing some pretty incredible things. We care so deeply about how others perceive us. When we fail, it’s no different. The first place our mind wanders is to the dreaded, “Oh god, what are they going to think?”
Maybe we did something we knew others would think was totally crazy/reckless. Maybe we screwed up in a very public way. Maybe we did something dumb, I mean really dumb.
So what? Failure is evidence of having tried. Your piece was rejected for the billionth time? So what? You proved that you’re a writer, though not yet a published one. (And think about it: how many aspiring writers do you know who have never written a damn word?) Your plan for a big career change backfired? You proved you’re brave enough to take a risk.
In other words, you jumped. Now other people are waving from the cliff judging you.
First off, they might not be. Like children, sometimes we concoct elaborate stories about monsters under the bed when the only things under there are dirty socks. Our insecurities about what other people “might” think are hypothetical. In reality, we might be imagining that people are far more critical than they actually are.
Still, there are others who will judge us and make their disapproval known. Ignore these people. Excise them like you would a cancerous tumor. Real friends will support you.
4. Move on
The easiest thing to do when we fail is to succumb to depression. Self pity is enticing. We feel bad about ourselves and, suddenly, we can’t escape the lure of the couch.
Yes, the loss of a dream is like the loss of a loved one. Mourn. Grieve. But move on.
Failure is not an excuse for inaction. If anything, it’s a rallying cry to do something boldly, radically different. If you’re sending hundreds of resumes into the lonely vacuum of cyberspace and getting no response, reassess your strategy. Maybe your action verbs need to be energized. Maybe you’re targeting the wrong jobs. Or maybe you have to adopt a whole new approach and network and actually meet people.
Either way, do something.
Failure presents an opportunity to learn something new.
Make your failure useful.