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
  2. Second, NURTURE RELATIONSHIP
  3. Third, LIVE CREATIVELY

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:

  1. OFFLOAD
  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.

OFFLOAD

 

 

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.

Sigh.

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