Failure as dissonance

Failure is only a matter of perspective, and not a label. It’s the dissonance between how we expect things to work, and how they actually pan out.

A friend of mine showed me this post, I agree that this is a refreshing interpretation so I wanted to share it here:

Failing isn’t something that happens, it’s a judgement you make

What does it mean to fail at something?

Deeming something a failure is not a statement of fact but a judgement our mind makes about something that has happened. We usually make this judgement when we intended something to happen because of our actions, and then something else happens instead.

You tried to pour coffee in your mug but it went on the table. You asked someone out hoping they would say yes, but they said no. You expected to do a hundred push-ups but your muscles gave up after eighty. What made you experience these outcomes as failures was not the fact that they occurred but the fact that you expected or wished for something else to occur.’

We do not fail, we label outcomes as failures. And like with all mental labels, we should be really careful when about to apply them. Having the idea that you have failed – or worse still, that you are a failure – can have negative effects of your self-confidence, sense of agency and flow. While experiencing a failure can sometimes lead to useful introspection, people who keep experiencing failures don’t tend to get stronger, they get more demoralized and perform worse as a result. Glorifying and romanticizing failure is a huge mistake for anyone interested in self-improvement.

How failure isn’t really real

If seeing failure as just a mental label sounds too much like self-deception to you, consider that the concept of failure doesn’t exist in the physical world at all. In the physical world, there are causes and there are effects: stuff happens and then some more stuff happens because of it. The spilled coffee didn’t know it was supposed to go inside the mug and your muscles had no consideration for your thought that they “should have been” able to contract more times. In a sense, things following cause and effect will always work out precisely as they should. The world didn’t make a mistake when some coffee missed the mug. In those specific circumstances, it was unreasonable to expect anything else to happen.

This leaves us with a lot less control than we would like to think we have. In reality, while we might have some control over what we think and do, we have no control over how the world around us responds to our input. Stoicism, Buddhism and even in Christianity (in the form of the serenity prayer) all acknowledge this and advise us to stop wishing that things would have gone differently. This, I would add, should include putting unhelpful labels on outcomes.

Letting go of failure still takes practice

To be clear, I do not propose that we give up intentions. Intending to do something does increase the likelihood that things will turn out well for us. I also don’t expect you to stop feeling disappointment. Disappointment is an inevitable part of how the human psychology works. But I do propose that, just as an experiment, you stop looking at your efforts like an athlete trying to break a record or a CEO trying to hit their targets. Start looking at them more like a scientist or an artist: with openness, curiosity, as few expectations as possible and a healthy respect for the realities of any specific situation.

Something that really helps with this mindset is practicing mindfulness meditation. As an activity, it’s a good encapsulation of what I’m talking about. Meditation is arguably very difficult to do yet at the same it’s impossible to really fail at. When you meditate, you are not looking to feel any particular way, not striving to achieve any specific state. You don’t evaluate how your session went by how many distracting thoughts you didn’t have. You simply sit there, observing your inner weather patterns, and keep bringing your attention back to your breath as many times as you need.

An example

Recently I asked someone how you could fail at playing the guitar. I was told to pick up a guitar and try. I did and, not rally knowing how to play, made enough noise to scare the dog away. Perhaps thanks to my mindfulness practice, at no point did my mind offer me the thought that I had failed. And why should it have? Only a masochist would label meeting all reasonable expectations as a failure. But had my mind offered me this thought, I would have thanked my mind and then let that thought pass without holding on to it.

And that’s how you stop failing at things.