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.


Some synthesis and narrowing

My intention with this blog is to write about the things I think about, with the goal of eventually synthesizing into meaningful frameworks to simplify things and actionable insights to that are usable. Ultimately I want output that I can do something with – rather than just collecting all this info as I read, listen to podcasts, contemplate and mull over. I’ve been doing that for years. It’s got to come together for something meaningful.

I’m coming off 5 days of being sick. It turns out I really was sick – there was a health reason for derailing, although I still could have managed it better than getting so down on myself.

Bottom line, I was feeling really, really bad and I was so disappointed and frustrated. It feels like I do so much to manage my depression, my moods, my sporadic moments of darkness and apathy, and yet it returns again and again, and I feel like a failure.

Fail, fail again, fail smarter. Accept failure as part of experimentation. Experimentation is about learning.

I stepped back and first thought about what goes into that bad feeling – what are the causes. Only then can I think about experimenting with new strategies to manage.

What triggers these bouts of intense negative states, where I fall into the habits of talking such crap about myself?

  • Depression
  • Monthly hormone cycles
  • Personality factors (perfectionist, self-critical, over-achiever)
  • Karma
  • External pressures (work, family, extended family, car, dogs, life)
  • Physical health
  • Sleep
  • Diet (gluten, high glycemic foods)
  • External noise (barrage of information and technology)
  • Time (time of day, seasonality)
  • Self-talk and ANTs (automatic negative thoughts)

One or two at a time might not make an impact, but pile a bunch together and suddenly I’m down a rat hole, feeling like there is no way out. I become immobilized – a common reaction for ENFP types.

Because I crash hard and fast I decided to focus on a few key principles to (1) help me get more resilient in the first place and (2) help me pull myself out faster. Something I can memorize, recite like a mantra, and act on without hesitation.

My initial rev on this is the following:

  1. First, FEEL GOOD

The first one requires some unpacking. Yes, it’s oversimplified. If things were really so easy, that I could just tell myself to feel good, I probably wouldn’t be getting so damn depressed in the first place. On the other hand, sometimes it is that easy – sometimes it is as simple as smacking yourself in the head and reminder you that you have more control than you think.

Usually, though, it’s more complicated. But, it can be broken down into manageable steps and it’s a muscle that can be flexed so that it can become easy.

Let’s focus on the first step – FEEL GOOD. This can be broken into 3 steps:

  2. RESET
  3. CHANGE COURSE (if needed)

The first of these is most important – OFFLOAD. Evaluate the negative energy, that negative emotion and negative self talk and ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Is this noise or a meaningful signal?
  2. What’s the source?
  3. Is this worth my attention?
  4. Is this what I choose to spend my energy on?

Use the answers to these questions to make important decisions. If it’s noise, call it noise and ignore it, especially if it’s from an internal source. Too much energy is wasted with negative self-talk and negative chatter about other people or things around you. Ask yourself if it adds any value at all and if not, shut it off. Channeling energy towards negativity costs more than just the loss of that energy – the negativity impacts your health, motivation and creativity, and that’s just the impact on you personally. This effect expands beyond you, to your loved ones and co-workers.

But some negative energy is a signal, and it’s important to recognize and process it, or it will keep coming back and bite you in the ass. Often it’s a sign that your body and/or mind is overloaded and you need to reset, refuel or change course. Notice this and address it early. Ignore it and that negative energy will become a monster and you’ll react poorly, turning to typical bad habits like food or alcohol. Catch it early, read the signal, and redirect the energy or flip it. More on that later.

Evaluate the meaningful signals and prioritize based on urgency and lotus of control. If it’s urgent and you have immediate control, then act. Act soon to get it over with – too much negative energy builds up worrying about something you are procrastinating on. There are better ways to spend that energy.

No matter urgency, there are some things you cannot fix right away, but should start addressing so the fix starts happening – such as health, sleep and diet. Managing personality quirks and karma fall under this too, but take longer to adjust. Still, these need ongoing attention to drive change for the better – otherwise you continue to set yourself up for failure.

Recognize the differences in the various ingredients that create negative energy and that sense of burden and feeling overwhelmed. Deconstruct that negative space enough to parse this out. Bucket and prioritize – offload what’s possible and make decisions with what is left, being very thoughtful of what you want to keep and pay attention to. Make deliberate choices as the decision impacts not only the moment, but your future state.




What to do when it all derails…

I don’t handle failure well. But, failure is exactly something that needs to be embraced on this Design Thinking, Experimenting approach to improving one’s life journey.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

I don’t handle it well because I feel very responsible for getting everything right the first time. It’s not necessarily about being a perfectionist, but rather having very high and specific expectations (which can include imperfections, but maybe not unexpected imperfections). Joel Mark Witt’s article about ENFP Personality Types (which is what I am) calls this out – the need to have things in order. That need makes it difficult to embrace experimentation – cause experimentation and design thinking is basically about testing whether that ‘order’ is right, and chances are, it isn’t, else why would you be experimenting in the first place?

I also don’t handle failure well because I feel ashamed. When I feel sick, I feel guilty. I can’t just let myself be sick – rather, I constantly ask myself, am I really sick? Or am I just being weak and pathetic? I think this is related to my experience with depression and how I’ve managed it. I’ve regarded it as a weakness and a flaw, so when I feel weak because of fatigue or illness, I am quick to question the root cause.

I ‘failed’ these last couple of days – because I didn’t stick these great habits and routines I was developing, because I wasn’t making any progress on my big goals and to-do lists, because I fell back into a number of shitty habits I’m not proud of and that don’t do me any good. And, that all got compounded by the fact that I kept beating myself up over all the failures! Which only made it worse.

Finally, I curled up in bed, with food and a cheese audiobook, and spent most of the next 36 hours there.

The next day I had a sore throat and I was like, hey! I really am sick! Ok, that totally changes things – I thought I was just weak and pathetic because of depression.


So, yeah, things derailed. And guess what, they derail a LOT, and they’re going to derail again and again and again, and I’ll have to start again and again and again. I need embrace the idea of starting again and again. But, with every derailment, there is an opportunity to learn something and try something new.

How do you embrace failure? It might be hard to do when in the moment of failure, but maybe even that perspective is a muscle to flex? There is definitely opportunity to use hindsight differently, less about critical eye on the failure itself, and more of a critical eye on making moments less hurtful. Moments. Not necessarily making everything better, but managing moments better, and not with the lens of trying to avoid failure next time, but just not being so hard on myself when I ‘fail’.

  • There are signals I can learn to read sooner and react to differently
  • There are reactions I have that I could change: thoughts, feelings, behaviors. But it may not be about changing them all, rather making some decisions along the way so I feel safer and feel okay.
  • There are certainly perspectives I have along the way as I step back and ‘evaluate’ myself – and they aren’t exactly very nice.

On the other hand – my reactions work. I’m not necessarily proud of them, but clearly I needed them, or at least needed the outcome.

Still, there are opportunities to fail more gracefully…and more creatively.

Take-away thought to ponder – failing gracefully, what does this mean? Accepting that there are things that cannot be changed? Or just accepting that there always will be failure? Maybe that’s another reason to own our stories; we can look for patterns in failure: are there signals that we should stop trying to change something, or to stop treating failures so painfully like failures?

Accept your imperfections and embrace them as things that make you who you are. No one is perfect, we all know that, so offering up grace to yourself and allowing yourself peace is important. Being hard on yourself is okay, but realizing you are human is also necessary. – Megan Gilger

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.

Setting up for success – Goal setting

In the realm of health and weight loss one of my biggest problem areas is night team snacking…which can very quickly evolve into night time binging. ‘Simple’ solution – just don’t eat after 7 pm.

I’ve tried that and can go about a week with noticeable results, but too soon I fail…and fail…and fail again. If this were an experiment, which, really, it is, I’d conclude there was something wrong with the proposed intervention.

That’s why this idea of mental energy fascinated me and the implications of the studies showing low mental energy undermines willpower and smart decision making. It gave me this idea that rather than focus all the attention on the singular event of eating after 7, what could I do to set myself up for success so I’d be less likely to oversnack during that time?

There is a ‘simple’ approach to this as well – look at the drivers, the causes that make you snack or overeat late in the evening and remove them. Most directly – remove the food. E.g. throw out tempting food, don’t go in the kitchen after 7, find a path from living room to bedroom that doesn’t go through the kitchen. A couple of flaws with this – you need to eat and avoiding all food is just plain cumbersome and complicated. But, for some, this could work. It didn’t for me.

Plan B – understand the subconscious reasons behind late snacking; your subconscious is ridiculously powerful and drives most of what you think and do, even if we do like to pretend we have control of it. We are actually better off listening to it, and collaborating, than trying to push it under – but that’s a conversation for another day.

In all likelihood, the underlying cause is some form of stress – either from work, from self, from relationships, etc.; there are many layers there. This, too, is very important and doing this can solve the bigger problem for many. Again, not me. It helped – but didn’t resolve things completely.

I’m on to Plan C – what if I tackle this as a challenging, complex problem, and approach it how I might approach a more complex project or problem at work? In other words, rather than thinking a simple solution might work, and all I have to do is implement it, what if I recognize it’s not that simple and I might need several steps to get there. What if I treat it as a bigger problem that could be managed more effectively if I break it down into smaller, manageable steps?

Luckily, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel – I can use existing frameworks, ones often used for possibly the most common complex problem millions of people struggle with, namely implementing and maintaining a new health plan, including diet and fitness.

This is when I happened to come across Dr. Mercola’s Guide to Optimal Fitness. He includes a section in his magazine (Spring, 2016) on exactly this topic – how to set yourself up for success – and the steps he lists could effectively be applied to any complex challenge.

I’m modifying it slightly for my personal experiment. Here are the steps I will take and why:

  1. Develop the DESIRE – “Our actions are usually based on fear or desire.” Focus on and build on the desire; depending on fear will lead to failure.
  2. Believe you can succeed – This is both a mindset, but also requires thoughtful consideration of the goal and the steps.
  3. Write down the goals, in 2 forms: (1) one form in a lot of detail, something to read for added visceral motivation and (2) one form short, one sentence, that can become your mantra
  4. Make a list of all the benefits of achieving the goal and “Get Emotional” – get at the WHY, not the WHAT. This will pump up that desire component and that belief component.
  5. Analyze your starting point – and be honest. What is the current situation and what are the components that come together to cause or promote the undesired behavior, or prevent the desired behaviors?
  6. Set a deadline
  7. Make a list of the people who’s support an cooperation you need.
  8. Write out a plan with the specific steps – both what and when.
  9. Use visualization.
  10. Make the decision in advance that you will never give up.
  11. Keep going – recognize it’s a journey, and little failures along the way are signals on how to refine and correct.

Next step – map this out for myself….coming soon.