On Failure

A lot has not been done because of the fear of failure.

But if you think about it clearly, in the grand scheme of things failure is irrelevant.

So let’s think about Failure.

We are afraid to fail because of two reasons:

  • Social Pressure - If you fail publicly you will end up hurting your pride which to most people is more important that money or any other loss. Pride, in my opinion is an ancient reptilian mental construct that either results in conflict or what's even worse -   ineptitude.
  • Result of a negative outcome - In this case you are projecting the outcome of your failure into the future. What if I don’t get a high score in SAT, what if I don't clear that interview, what if my business partner ends up cheating me? These are all scenarios that haven’t happened yet, and in the pressure of an immediate result your mind is conjuring up the worst case scenarios with complete disregard for any reasonable predictor of these scenarios. In some cases your fear might be justified, that is what drives you to put a self directed effort into facing a tough situation. But in most cases it isn’t, as you are running only on “what if” scenarios. So whatever you think is most likely to happen next, will most likely not.  Even though it's in your control to prepare well for your graduate studies you can’t predict if there will be a recession when you graduate. You also don’t know if you would end up working for a startup that gives you stocks that’ll eventually make you a millionaire. Maybe that is an option you wouldn’t have considered had you graduated during normal times. So at any given time all you can do is to give it your best shot and keep improvising.

But how do you know if your 'best' is in the right direction?

Ask yourself - have you learned from all the failures you’ve had in your life? You might think you do, but there is no way for you to check that, unless you have been mindful of your failures.

You are mindful of your failures when:

  • You are able to detach yourself from the failure and think about the reasons for failure rationally. This is very hard because it requires you to be self critical and take responsibility of your actions. It's so easy to see the mistakes all around you, but it requires a different mindset to look in the mirror and hold yourself solely responsible for all your failures. The other aspect is recovering from this shocking self-discovery. I recover by saying, “I am responsible for all my failures and I am also responsible for all my successes.” The idea is to be cautiously optimistic not blindly optimistic when facing a failure. Another mind-hack that I use to self criticize is what I call “Worst Boss Improv”. All of us have had a boss who has always been totally against everything we ever did or attempted to do. Boss here stands for your worst critic, it might be your sibling, a strict teacher, your parents or even your spouse ;-) The idea is to imagine yourself as the Worst Boss and start assessing all your preceding actions with the sole objective of finding mistakes in them. Once you have a list of mistakes, you either write them down or shout out in a recorder that you listen to after a gap of few days. I give a week's gap before listening to it.

  • You record your failures. You can create a notebook (digital or paper) and call it “My Mistakes” (no I am not 11:-), In this notebook you mention the date, context and learning from a particular mistake. If you want to be more geeky about it, you can even classify your mistakes (life threatening, career threatening, financial, social, personal). You can refer your notebook when you are about to make an important decision.

The way to understand failure is to know that the universe we live in maximizes disorder. The second law of thermodynamics or its pop version Murphy’s law gives us more options to do something wrong than to do something right. So the game is rigged in the favour of failure. You just have to be willing to play the game with the knowledge that you will most likely fail and it won't bother you because you’ve got a system that will help you avoid this particular mistake next time.

Keep in mind you only have to succeed once, and every time you fail you are only learning about things that don't work. 

The only catch here is to be mindful of the failure and more importantly to find something worth failing.


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