My failures are improving

I’m noticing significant changes in my perspectives and patterns – I am thriving more consistently than I ever have in the past. I am still failing often, but those failures are becoming easier to recover from, easier to manage, and of greater value as I pay more attention to them.

What do I call failure? I’m pretty hard on myself, so there is a lot I call ‘failure’ that many people might not. It’s not about wanting to be a perfectionist by any means, but it is about being consistently happy. And I don’t mean massive happiness, but contentment -feeling at peace, feeling connected, feeling like you are of value and are loved, feeling accomplished, etc. Whatever it might be for an individual or for that moment, but to feel good.

My personal ‘failures’ are when I’m not in that space of feeling good, and I’m doing things that undermine feeling good in the near future. I’m a jerk to others, I am a jerk to myself, I shut down and retreat, become antisocial, depressed, start to binge or worse. It can get ugly. There are, of course, big failures and small failures, but in my mind, they all feel really shitty.

In the past even a small failure – something as simple as not exercising one day, when it was on my to-do list – can snowball and result in a dismal personal state. I am wicked hard on myself, but that’s not something I can easily turn off.

That’s where systems thinking has become so important to me – coming to understand connections and network effects, and non-reductionist thinking. For any ‘bad behavior’ there are a number of drivers and causes, and a number of approaches to modify the system that results in that behavior. For example, it’s not just missing exercise one afternoon that causes a depressed state. Other things may have caused it, and not exercising might be a consequence, not a cause. On the other hand, exercise is so fundamental for the ‘me’ system to feel good, that missing it one day can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The main point is that taking the lens that you should simply ‘stop’ a bad behavior is the complete bass-ackward approach to take. Making the decision to stop and telling yourself to stop is an important step, but it is never that simple. Pretending otherwise sets you up for failure. To say ‘just quit smoking’, or ‘just start exercising’, or ‘just stop snacking after 7’ by itself doesn’t work. For success, there are big and small system changes you need to make before and during. And for real success, those changes are unique to every individual and their situation – they need to be discovered with experimentation.

For example, recent system changes I’ve made – small things, but that impact bigger systems – and that I continue to experiment with:

  1. Gradual diet changes – reducing sugar and gluten intake, drinking more water, eating more protein and fat.
  2. Creative exercise routines – mixing and matching different exercises, for different opportunities and moods, making it easier to be physically active in some way, every day
  3. Nurturing rituals – starting simple, and modifying to where it fits me, not a ritual that someone else is doing for themselves. Rituals in the morning help me get out of bed and into a better mood very quickly, and set me up for a better day. I am working on an evening ritual that promotes healthy sleeping and not late night snacking.
  4. Casual art – this has been huge, finding a comfortable path toward more creative, artistic behaviors and mindsets, flexing that muscle that taps into a deeper creative energy that has been dormant for too long. This has been tough, but very rewarding
  5. Pacing – creating buffers, allowing more time, being thoughtful of what I’m doing when, how different tasks cost energy or add energy, and being thoughtful of how I combine or stagger them can improve the system as a whole; listening to my body, hearing what it needs
  6. Defining goals and priorities – this, too, is a work in progress…but it adds important focus.

These are all just examples, but together, they are making a big difference.  I am thriving more, aching less. I am happy and content more often than battling depression.

The ‘failures’ are happening less often, and I am able to recover more quickly because I am building resilience and creating more ‘rescue’ tools through rituals and new habits and opportunities.

More importantly, I am actively learning from them. Failures used to be just that – failure, and validation that I truly do suck, and just seem to be pretty good at hiding that fact from everyone. Now, failures are becoming signals. They are clear announcements that something isn’t right and I should take a closer look. I can backtrack from failures and look at patterns, discover new connections and understand more deeply how I tick and what I need. Failures allow for that deeper understanding and this informs changes I can make to allow myself to thrive more deeply.

So now I work towards several goals:

  1. Set myself up to thrive more, fail less.
  2. Build up resilience and capabilities so when there is failure, it’s easier to bounce back.
  3. Practice awareness around failure to learn more (to support 1 and 2)
  4. Nurture the sensitivity to feel the ‘failure’ signals sooner

One of my hobbies is martial arts and MMA (for fun). With practice, I am learning to read the signals from my opponent and anticipate punches sooner. The better I get at this, the more I can ‘see’ into the future. That’s what I’d like to do with the failure signal – become more aware and more sensitive to my feelings, thoughts, and actions, so that I can sense my ‘crash’ sooner, and learn and act accordingly to adjust course.

Works in progress. For now, my failures are improving, and that makes me happy.


Post principles and Shodo

As I started with this blog I focused on themes – a particular theme for each post. This was a good forcing mechanism to get myself to narrow on a meaningful message and not just ramble.

Last week I tried a different format – Bits and Pieces – because there were loose ends of things I wanted get on ‘paper’ before I forgot. They reflected meaningful moments – aha’s, little insights, big steps. I want to be able revisit these and unpack them, and explore new understanding.

Today I am somewhere in the middle and it’s making me think about principles around posts.

  1. I don’t want to ramble and lack focus/meaning.
  2. But I don’t want to worry so much about having it just right that I don’t write at all.
  3. I want to be excited about writing, not feel like it is a chore.
  4. I’m hoping for patterns, but rather have them emerge and not be forced.
  5. And so as not to stress myself out, focus on writing, for me – in order to encourage conversations with me about things that fascinate me, and if others join in, that’s definitely a bonus!

I have moments in the day where I’m really excited about a topic and am eager to write, but then face the reality of a full day at work, an evening at home with family and dogs and house work and me work, and that energy and enthusiasm dwindles.

Putting all that together, what’s a good strategy? What will set me up to write with enthusiasm and meaning? This brings me to my experimentation of the moment – bits and pieces, but with an emerging theme. Or the other way around – an emerging theme, but with lots of bits and pieces

One particular moment of pleasure stands out for today, which almost prompts a theme: coming home to a package from Amazon and seeing it was a particular book I ordered yesterday and started reading online shortly after. It was meaningful because of a number of connections to past ideas and events – and I thought for a moment, which connection do I follow as part of the blog? I can’t write about all of them at once.

My mind wandered into several directions and I felt overwhelmed and uncertain where to start – I wanted to get that spark down, but now had so much else I wanted to tackle.

I stepped back and did a quick mind map sketch, starting with the pleasure of that package and how it connected to a number of other important topics. And that mind map offers a quick glimpse into how I tick – the many things I think about and connections I make at any given moment. All of which I want to write about, because as I do, I have more clarity, both into the topics themselves as well as what they mean as they connect with each other and connect with me. And taking time to understand them, reflect on why they fascinate me, and draw deeper connections between them and what they teach me will ultimately make me a better person.

Here is the mind map sketch. For this post, I’ll focus only on what triggered the most enthusiasm and why – but eventually, I’ll follow up on other topics (some I already have).

Shodo inspired mind map
Shodo inspired mind map

The book is Shodo, the Quiet Art of Japanese Zen Calligraphy. I was in the Barnes and Nobles a few days ago and it spoke to me; I looked at it, wanted to buy it, but already had 2 other books in hand. Lately I’ve spent more time in bookstores, ‘listening’ to the books, perusing the shelves and letting them speak to me. Maybe people do that all the time? I don’t – I usually go in with a specific intent, to buy one particular book, instead of just wandering and exploring. But I’ve been on this kick of trying to get at my purpose and will work with any signal I can get. Some months ago I forced myself to be quiet and listen, and let books grab me, and boy did a lot grab me! More on that another time.

Something about this book struck me deeply; I could stare at the pages for hours, but I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because it looks familiar? Years ago I dabbled in Sumi-e painting, . I think it’s more than that, though. I think what fascinates me is that on the surface it looks so simple, but underneath are so many complexities. You can’t easily replicate any one of the zengo. It takes rigor, practice and structure, yet in the end, to really make a true zengo, you must let go. And there is so much mystery, spirit and emotion in a small package, in one simple looking ideogram.

It’s the depth and complexity, combined with something visually so simple that resonates. And there is the emotional element, and the energy element it reflects. The first chapter describes a fascinating study done many years ago, where it looked at true shodo masterpieces against forgeries under an electron microscope and found alignment of carbon particles on the true works, and chaos in the particles on the forgery. This alignment is a result of the energy that comes together as the artist sets his body, mind and spirit together towards this one activity, and brings his energy, his ki, into the preparation and into the artwork. The books also discusses how this art form requires time, patience, practice, depth…did I mention time? How important it is to take the time to do things well…

Shodo, art, books about art, art thinking, energy, emotion, trying something new, experimenting, signals into true self, time, patience, mindfulness, stillness, meditation….all connected.