This Secret Insight of Failure is the Key to Success
What if we've been thinking about failure wrong?
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This Secret Insight of Failure is the Key to Success.
What if we’ve been thinking about failure wrong?
A thought experiment: Consider that failure wasn’t conclusive or absolute but a necessary aspect intrinsic to the nature of trying.
Through this framework, life would feel different, our outlooks would change, and our sense of self-worth would shift and bloom.
Yet, our society leads us to believe (and accept) that one misstep is a failure, and we’re urged to abandon our efforts and seek easier paths.
This, my friends, is a bullshit angle.
Let’s take it apart.
Imagine a baby trying to walk. It’s her first time, and she falls. Perhaps she tries one more time and falls again.
Her caregiver recognizes this for what it is—failure. Obviously, since the baby failed at walking, the caregiver must now carry the baby forevermore. What’s the use of trying again?
In fact, whenever the baby does make another attempt at walking, the caregiver dissuades her because she has already proved that she can’t do what she tried that one time.
This is often how we behave toward ourselves. We ask someone out on a date; they say no. We ask someone else, and they also say no. That’s it then, we decide. Our few attempts failed, so it’s time to give up on finding a partner.
When we give in to thwarted attempts to succeed, we miss real opportunities for growth.
Babies don’t see their inability to walk on the first try as a failure. They don’t approach life through a critical lens. Instead of embracing and learning from the open and flexible mindsets of babies and kids, we guide them away from these valuable qualities.
This broke my heart because what I see that he can’t is everything on the other side of giving up and all the wins he’s overlooking.
Big wins are great, of course. Who doesn’t want a big win?
But what exactly IS a big win—A Pulitzer prize, Idris Elba as your life partner (yes, please)? A book deal?
The point I was trying to make is that when we overlook small wins, we overlook just how often we actually succeed.
We often get in our own way by setting unreasonably high standards for ourselves.
For many, a win means external validation, which is fun—duh—but it’s fleeting and out of your control. What is in your control is internal validation. And one way to give it to yourself is to set realistic standards and not compare your life or selfhood to others.
This is hard to do in a world that tricks us into thinking there is one template upon which a life can be valid.
The wins of our society look like this: Get a rewarding and fulfilling job, find “the one,” get married, have a wedding, buy a house, get a car, have kids, maybe a dog, and go on Caribbean vacations.
But this model of living is a trap because not only does it offer only one option for what a successful life looks like, it’s framed within the context of permanence.
After all, if you don’t remain married, society intimates that you’ve failed. It would be best if you kept up appearances and never openly admitted to marital distress or you have failed. If you’re a parent or caregiver, your child can have no obvious challenges, or you have failed.
The point is there is more than one way to be a human being; there is more than one way to live your life, and true failure is actually quite difficult.
For a long time, I chased after external validation to measure my sense of self-worth and success. Sometimes, it worked; more often, it failed. When things got quiet, the urge for more external validation grew stronger. In the silent moments, as I waited for someone to prop me up, I had a realization—my greatest success was something I hadn’t yet done or hoped to one day achieve, but something that I was doing ALL THE TIME.
If you’re new to me, I grew up with a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25. Before I sounded out words, I had panic attacks. Panic attacks, for those lucky folks who’ve never had one, are debilitating, horrifying episodes of internal terror.
A panicking person feels like their life is actively being threatened, that they’re in danger, that they can’t breathe, that they might stop breathing at any second. Dread and doom vibrate throughout your body as a heavy, startling warmth. There is no way out, and no one can help you because the terror is invisible and out of everyone’s control.
My panic attacks were chronic and excessive. They happened before leaving my mother—for school every morning and for my dad’s every other weekend. I panicked in advance of class trips, sleepovers (which I could never complete), and anything that kept me from having my eyes on my mother, who I believed would die or disappear if I wasn’t watching her.
Nearly every single day of my life until I was 25, I panicked. By the time I was diagnosed, my panic was so extreme I hadn’t left my apartment in three weeks. Because my panic disorder had gone undiagnosed and untreated for so long, it multiplied, giving rise to other disorders, including clinical depression, agoraphobia, social anxiety, dysthymia, and more.
The fear of panicking was so great that I spent much of my life avoiding things that might give rise to that exquisite agony. This made my life smaller and smaller. It meant staying home where I felt safe. It meant not seeing friends or going to bars or parties. It meant not living the life I actually wanted but knew I would fail to attain so long as I had to feel the terror of annihilating dread.
But I knew something else—I knew that avoiding the panic made my panic worse, which led me to understand that going toward it was the only way to tame it.
Avoided despair is a person’s best way forward. The more we suffer, the more motivated we are to overcome it.
The hardest thing a person can do is face their fears, yet that felt easier to me than living in constant dread of experiencing the terror of panic.
But I knew that’s what I had to do if I wanted to live.
And so, ever since I was 25, I have been going toward my fear so I can live the life I want. Does my life look how I wanted it to? Not even close. I don’t have a partner; I’ve never been married. I have zero children. I don’t own a house or a car. I barely make enough money to pay my rent. (Although I do have the absolute best dog in the world.)
And if having those specific trappings truly were the measure of life, then I would feel very much like a failure (and honestly, some days I do). But when I take a step back, I see something else. I see a win bigger than achieving the traditional rites of passage we consider markers of a full life—I see that I fought hard for the life I now have.
I am spending my life facing my difficulties, learning from them, and growing. Every day. All the time. Because I aim to live according to the first clause in this Soren Kierkegaard sentence.
…to be the self which one truly is.
When I consider the decades of energy spent building layers against being seen, I can’t help but imagine how I might have otherwise harnessed that energy.
That’s the energy I’m using now, in my adult life.
Achievement needn’t be external to count. A win looks like facing and overcoming internal obstacles. Our inner life is often disregarded as unimportant, but without contact and engagement with our deepest self, how can we have a genuine connection with the deepest parts of others?
Selfhood depends upon the individual’s capacity to confront anxiety and move ahead despite it.
So, when you say that you’ve tried, but you’ve failed to achieve, think of the effort not over a few months or even a year or ten; think of effort as something that continues all the time, for your entire life.
There is no such thing as failure to achieve when you reframe what a win can look like.
To celebrate this idea, here is a list of 10 of my wins:
Facing my fears to overcome my debilitating panic so that I could finally:
Leave my apartment
Leave the city
Go to parties
Perform on stage
Learn to stand up for myself
Growing from a person terrified of being exposed for having panic disorder to talking openly about my suffering so that others feel less alone
Showing up for therapy when I was in therapy, even when it was literally the last thing I felt like doing
Learning how to drive at age 33
Getting a dog
Getting out of bed and showering when I’m depressed
Doing the dishes, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, showering, getting groceries, paying the bills, responding to emails, DMs, texts, returning phone calls, making doctor’s appointments, walking the dog, AND doing my job all in one day or one week.
Reaching out for help when I need it
My continued efforts to be a tidy person
Being a thoughtful and present friend.
These are wins, and every last one deserves to be counted.
I invite you to celebrate overlooked life wins. The small and large moments you take for granted, or don’t count just because.
What are some of your overlooked life wins? Let me know in the comments!
Until next week, I will remain…
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