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.


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

Facing Depression – and what that story can tell me

This begins the experiment of telling my story and letting my story guide the next chapter. To use Shawn Phelp‘s phases, this is about Act 1, the Setting, and, I suppose  also Act 2, the Turning Points, all in service to discover Act 3 – the Character Arc, where will my story take me.

What if I were to accept the fact that depression has been a significant part of my life, instead of regard it as a flaw or weakness?

What if I were to accept the fact that depression has been a significant part of my life, instead of regard it as a flaw or weakness? What if I share my experiences with it, instead of hiding them, and being ashamed? It has defined me, and brought me where I am now, and underscores many of the concepts and ideas I eagerly explore now. What if, instead of regarding is at a flaw, I embrace it as a super power and reflect on what it gave me, rather than how it made me suffer?

I would like to get to a place where I can genuinely help others with depression, rather than avoid them because of the fear I have of sliding over that precipice again, and not being able to come back. I know how much it hurts, I know just how intense the helplessness is, and I know just how difficult it is to come out the other side. But I also know it can be done, and I know that I’m stronger and better because of it.

I’m not sure how far to dive into this, though, because it actually still terrifies me. Am I strong enough to face it, rather than hide from it? Is there value in doing that? I’m scared of opening a box that is going to be very difficult to close. So maybe I’ll tread carefully with that for now, and focus less on the darkness, and more on the positive outcomes.

I realize the world has come a very long way in the 25 years since I first struggled with it. Thank goodness.

A few things in particular have made me give more thought to my experience with depression – things I’ve learned that help me understand more about it, how to manage it, and maybe how to help others who struggle with it. As I read more about it I realize the world has come a very long way in the 25 years since I first struggled with it. Thank goodness.

They tried to convince me my problem was repressed memories of my father doing inappropriate things – something I know never happened, but the doubts they raised were damaging enough.

I was first diagnosed while in college, although patterns began in high school. I isolated myself, disconnected from friends, and turned to binging, bulimia and self-cutting for coping. I eventually went on Prozac and was in therapy, but both with limited success. Therapy in college involved long silences where the therapist just sat there looking at me with sad eyes, waiting for me to talk, or the psychiatrist telling me my problem was I hadn’t accepted Christ in my life, or together them trying to convince me my problem was repressed memories of my father doing inappropriate things – something I know never happened, but the doubts they raised were damaging enough.

I eventually found better ways to cope, more natural ways, in particular with a adrenaline. I joined a Skydiving Club – that, honestly, did wonders. You can’t possibly depressed when you are 15,000 feet in the air, flying at 90 miles an hour. I began pursuing a degree in Counseling Psychology and met a number of great people – I thought if I can’t get help, I’ll help myself. That was the beginning, I suppose, of my focus on studying people, how we tick, how we can thrive instead of suffer. But it’s been a circuitous journey.

Over the years I dove deep into religious study and spirituality, trying to find ways to cope, read dozens and dozens of self-help books, sought treatment from a variety of caregivers, and went down a number of rat holes of self-destructive behaviors. But, I believe I can say I have overcome the worst of it. There have been very important people along the way who were essential to the process of healing, as were specific events and better management tools. And as I write about this, I realize how important it is and valuable it is to tell the story, to share my gratitude, to appreciate the struggles and celebrate the outcomes. There is joy in all of this – a lot of things to feel very, very good about.

It is so important to take a holistic view of depression, not only in the treatment, but what it can tell us about ourselves.

I jotted down a number of things related to depression, concepts I’ve come to understand as being essential to healthier management of depression, tools to help with thriving instead of surviving; all topics I want to explore as I go. It is so important to take a holistic view of depression, not only in the treatment, but what it can tell us about ourselves.

  1. The importance of telling, reflecting on and appreciating your life story, to celebrate growth, gain insight into your true self and trajectory, and acknowledge the goodness around you, in people, in the world, and in spirit.
  2. Taking a different lens on depression – rather than an illness, a signal of a lack of alignment between your ‘active’ self and your true self. This is a theme I’m following on the Personality Hacker Podcast and blog and I’m eager to learn more.
  3. Thinking more holistically and understanding the building blocks of Body, Mind, Heart and Spirit, and how depression manifest itself when these building blocks and their connections haven’t been optimized. For example, the importance of the right diet to include fats and Omega 3’s, promoting neurogenesis.
  4. Related, but a separate bucket – this theme that in terms of depression as reflection of energy misalignment, it problem is rooted in the heart, and not the brain or mind. I’ve always been so focused on the mind and ‘fixing it’, but learning that there are opportunities to care for the heart, core feelings and connections and relationships with people around me. This is certainly a theme that has been evolving with my energy work with Martin.
  5. The perspective of your personality, your quirks, your tendencies as your Super Powers, and not signs of weakness or being broken.
  6. Depression and difficult emotions as signs and signals, not hurdles or punishment; by listening, it gives us direction as to where we should be going, it can guide us to our true self.
  7. With awareness of our true self and acceptance, we thrive and become healthy members of a bigger community that is or at least significantly overlaps with the Creative Class. Discovering and identifying with the True Self is more important now than ever, not only for our personal health, but the health of our families, communities, even our world.

Discovering and identifying with the True Self is more important now than ever, not only for our personal health, but the health of our families, communities, even our world.

A lot of big stuff here. But it’s exciting, invigorating!

And I’m realizing that although I started this blog with the focus that this was for me more than anyone else (so as not to get hung up about what others thought), I do look forward to conversations. This isn’t a journey to take alone. The next step is to reach out and make more connections, and not be afraid.