Let me open with a small fact. This semester I failed a course. This is not about that. This is instead about the greatness of the revelation that comes with failure and really how it is the best thing that happened to me in 2015.
Now the first thing you’ll be looking for is some spin on it all where failure is really success in disguise. Not here. I want to define failure: Failure is what you feel when something is left undone that you had faith you would do. Unlike most feelings failure is one that has two elements, one is tangible and the other is intangible, and both exist in a frame of time that shifts alongside a person’s preconceptions about themselves. When you are angry you are angry, sad then sad, happy then happy, listless the same and so forth and so on but with failure and its counterpart success you are left with the question of engagement and ultimately the choice of how to look at it.
This makes Failure an incredibly complex thing. Is failure the stepping stone for success? Well, sometimes; sometimes the tangible element fails but the internalized component sees progress and so it is a success, and vice versa, and sometimes unfortunately it depends on the day and your mood and perhaps even the alignment of the stars. The title of this is not from nowhere though, it is directly tied to this, and I want to discuss the last component of the previous sentence in which sometimes it does indeed depend on the day and your mood and the alignment of how things are.
The Chronology of “If Only” is a mantra. I looked backwards first, as we oft do when we fail, and said to myself, “If only I had …” which makes sense because if somehow I had done something different the outcome would be different! We call this complimentary feeling ‘Regret’ which is the idea that somehow if time warped and shifted things would be different. The reality is that nothing would have changed; the basis is that it is only with the knowledge we have now of the outcome that we would inspire ourselves to do better but this completely ignores the fact that we have foresight and are not ignorant to cause and effect or happenstance and consequence. ‘Regret’ then serves what purpose? It makes us feel better.
We think to ourselves, “If I had done X, Y, and Z then A, B, and C.” even in our grief because no matter how great or small the loss or it’s permanence it is very real. This empowerment of the self, the idea that we would have changed, could have shifted, should have become who we needed to be then and that this person exists within us is the comfort. It is like soothing balm after a sting. But the importance of this is that regret is not a bad thing; it is a good thing and letting it work for you is part of that mantra.
The second portion of the mantra is, as we oft do, looking forward. “How do I prevent this? How do I become impervious to my own downfalls?” the analysis of ourselves is one which we also go through when grieving a failure or slight against the self. Our eyes are not fixated on the future but they are fixated on something: The Perceived Self. Here, once more, we comfort ourselves with the notion that we are actually capable of overcoming the previous bad self and blossoming into the excellent good self in some unaccounted for amount of time. We analyze ourselves, our faults, our behaviors, and I did this and some of the conclusions I came to immediately were stupid but they of course existed because this is also a part of treating the self. I wound up canceling the IQ testing and achievement testing I was going to take and stopped telling myself to throw out my videogames as if nose to the grindstone would work and I wouldn’t find some other distraction.
Here we are our own hero. When we let ourselves down, or let down others whom we feel are an extension of ourselves, or fail at acts that we believe are an extension of ourselves or just in general see a failure that we believe we, the supermen, could have prevented we are hurt. Instead of crying “Why God, why?” we cry “Why dudebroself, why?” and then grow determined to change. The problem is that this is a feeling, and it is actually a really commonly overhyped one, called ‘Motivation’. That’s right, this is a form of motivation, but it never sticks and our habits rarely change unless something dire or mysterious happens and thus why we can look at the weight bench, take note of the weight bench, read all the information we need on the use of the weight bench, sign up for the gym which has the weight bench, and even sit on the weight bench a few times but never actually finish.
I would say, unlike regret, motivation is actually really unhealthy. The reason why is its temporal nature and the difficulty of harnessing it. When looking ahead from a failure one of the things we don’t realize in general is that this motivation is part of the process and is the norm. We almost always do this. So as part of the cycle instead of actually analyzing our failure cycle we analyze the perceived source of the failures and dedicate ourselves to defeating them versus making real changes which in turn of course leads us down the same cycle. The problem with motivation is that it’s so easy to get motivated; you go to YouTube and see a TEDTalk, your bodybuilding hero, that girl with perfect whatever, the smartest person in the room in class or even just someone who is doing any mediocre amount better than you and you think to copy them but you don’t realize that you are licking your wounds when you do this versus actually building a plan. The dialogues are simple:
“If I do this then I won’t be the bad me, I’ll be the good me I know I am, therefore …”
However the reality is that there is no bad you or good you, just you, so that same you doesn’t change and we go back and forth telling ourselves to become something we are not actually wanting to become. We do not change through wishing to change but through choosing to change and motivation is anything but the choice to change, and in fact, simply distances yourself as you are from change because it tells you that the good you exists somewhere in the future that isn’t today and someday you’ll just up and abandon this bad you and all you have to do is just get really, really pumped up. The only thing inflated here is the ego.
The third portion, of course, is the present. This is where you sit down with yourself and have a discussion but that discussion should be a moment of silence. No, no one died, but instead it’s just learning to accept what is, what is not, what you have and have not done, and truly building a plan forward by engaging in the stillness of the moment. While ‘Regret’ and ‘Motivation’ compliment a feeling of failure ‘Stillness’ encompasses it. It is the moment that you realize that failure and success actually have the same definition just depending on which side of the coin you are on:
“Failure is what you feel when something is left undone that you had faith you would do.”
“Failure is what you feel when something is done that you had faith you could not do.”
“Success is what you feel when something is done that you had faith you could not do.”
“Success is what you feel when something is left undone that you had faith you would do.”
Think about this for a moment. We have such black and white views of outcomes, of failure and success, and yes there is a tangible element as you can fail an assessment or you can completely succeed at an assessment but the moment that comes with noting that feelings of failure or success are dependent on how we look at things brings a new equation into this mix. This is not some feel-good positive, “So don’t think your failures are failures!” but instead a challenge to look at the self and see what makes things what they really are. We are not prompted or prone to separate the two and unfortunately we have decided that the two are inseparable on multiple fronts. So instead of learning how to deal with both the emotion and the reality as separate beings we do ourselves the dishonor of motivation and regret cycles.
The story of the underdog makes us feel good! The bad guy getting the axe in the end makes us feel good! This is our duality; we are all the underdog, that is the Motivation cycle, the good you that’s just lying dormant in the future you cooked up, and the enemy is the bad you, the one that is either in the past or slightly behind your present (because at no point are you presently the bad you, even if you consider it so, since you can only assess and judge beyond your current self) and how he’ll get the axe and yield to the divine justice that is the good you! The problem with this delusion is that without the stillness there is only noise; the good you exists in a separate multiverse that you birthed in your head and the bad you exists because the good you doesn’t but someday that’ll just stop and you’ll just stop as well.
The essential truth is this:
The Chronology of ‘What if’ is more than just a realization at how we look at things but also a call to action on how we deal with how we look at things. It is a vicious cycle that we have no control over until we admit we are in the vicious cycle. That however is up to you. No amount of knowledge, no amount of motivation, example, testimony or noisy pleading will change who you are but surprisingly a moment of silence may.
(unrelated and required)