You’re Not a Prisoner of Failure

You’ve just forgotten that you still have a choice

The idea of failure is an interesting one. The word is derived from the mid 17th century, originally failer which translates to a ‘non-occurrence.’ Imagine telling yourself you had a non-occurrence when you failed to achieve something, rather than berating yourself? How would that change your perspective?

In society failure is understood as an inability to live up to your own, or others, expectations. However, in many ways it is a truth that becomes a lie, and remains a lie until we make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Failure, after all, is a concept – an idea that cannot exist in the present moment. Are you failing right now while reading this? Did you fail this morning when you drank your coffee? Chances are you didn’t. However you may have made a connection to ordering a coffee and being late for work. The coffee becomes the first point of failure – the catalyst.

What I’m saying is that you are not a prisoner of failure, and you are not doomed or condemned to an eternity of purgatory. Because each failure is an opportunity to evolve. If you consider the famous quote from Taoist master Lao Tzu …

“Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. Therefore the Master fulfills her own obligations and corrects her own mistakes. She does what she needs to do and demands nothing of others.” – Lao Tzu

Two words here that stand out to me: opportunity and obligation. Apart from my geeky pleasure of deciphering quotes, I find some real solace in these words. First, the idea of failure being an opportunity to learn, to change and avoid repeating the same mistakes. It is a responsibility, not to make judgements, but to begin a self-inquiry into unhealthy patterns – old habits and behaviors that may be preventing you from achieving your goals. Then, you have an obligation to honor your authentic self – to adapt to change, yet stay true to your dreams and desires.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu

When we get caught up in regret, or become obsessed with analyzing past blunders, we tend to do this with the present as well – as we attempt to control every outcome for fear of repeating old mistakes. But this anxious need to control everything can cause other problems that are often connected to old patterns of behavior. Lao Tzu is more concerned with the ability to be present in the moment, by accepting whatever challenges may arise, rather than getting bogged down with past failures that we usher into the present.

The toxic cycle of failure and regret

I have failed more times than I’d like to admit. I’m talking about failures that have really tested my ability to soldier on: failures in career, missed opportunities, or not taking opportunities seriously. Failures in relationships, professional, personal and especially romantic. Failures I would like to undo – revisit, unravel and repair. Failures I would like to transform into realized, complete occurrences. But the problem with obsessing over past failures is that it tethers us to distorted accounts of the past, and distorted beliefs of ourselves. It unfairly taints the past, like a diary full of red crosses, and leads to regret. Together, failure and regret become a vicious loop, like the ancient Egyptian symbol of the ouroboros, which depicts a serpent eating its own tail. When we succumb to regret, we can’t help but fall victim to that particular failure. In other words, we can only regret what we have failed. When was the last time you regretted a successful assignment, an impactful moment at work or a fantastic night out? Regret deals in absolute mishaps and downfalls. It makes me think of a popular quote by George Bernard Shaw …

“Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity it has to be wasted on children!”

You might recognize the quote in its modern form, “Youth is wasted on the young.” But despite its variations, it’s a profound statement about regret. Lost or squandered youth is a unique and caustic kind of regret. When you’re young, you treat everything as disposable, living from moment to moment, often without thought for the future or the consequences of pursuing a life full of decadence and self-indulgence. I was no different. In my twenties I was too busy pursing music and attending parties to worry about big-picture concepts. I was living through my emotional experiences, caught up in the miniseries of my own personal drama. If I could literally relive my precious youth, I would study filmmaking and make that my life’s ambition. But I can’t. I didn’t, and I have to be OK with that. We have to find the acceptance of what is, instead of what could’ve been.

“When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.” ― Margaret Atwood

The one that got away. In 2011 a friend of mine whispered “You should marry that girl.” What if …

Regret is only a thought away. It’s incredibly easy to want to go back to the past to make sense of mistakes, or want to remove a blemish; an ink spot. But those stains are permanent. All you can do is take the lessons from those failures – those ‘non-occurrences’ – and approach similar life situations with more wisdom and a broader perspective. The latin word circare means to traverse or wander through something. And this is how I see failure and regret – you must wander through, around, into and out of your failures to arrive at your destination. You must traverse the waters of failure mindfully and avoid rumination as often as possible. Once you have learnt the life lessons you need to learn, the past can no longer serve you. Also, you may need to ask yourself: Is this really a failure or is this just a story I am telling myself? Unless you are mindful of your core beliefs and negative thinking, you will build your present life on a bedrock of low self-esteem and disappointment. Socrates said: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” The past is always generative of what you’re doing right now, and each decision you make today you will ultimately have to answer for in the future.

To forgive is to “free it up”

Finally, there comes forgiveness of self. If you’re holding onto regret and anger (which is completely normal and human) you might want to consider letting that old ball and chain go. I met a woman some years back while trekking up the Copland River in New Zealand. She was a hut warden and took one look at me and said, “Free it up.” At the time I didn’t know what she meant, but I soon came to admire (and somewhat resent) her intuitiveness. She could see I was carrying the burden of self – a deep regret at the loss of a past relationship that I hadn’t healed from. She didn’t know the nature of my burden, but she didn’t have to, because she could see I was weighed down by something. Those three words stayed with me:

Free it up.

Three simple words that convey so much. I remember it was raining and cold and I sat in my tent and wept. I mourned my losses until I felt I had wrung my soul dry. Most importantly, I had to forgive myself for whatever it was I felt responsible for. I had to accept that mistakes were made, events had transpired. And while I could not change the past, I did have the choice of self-compassion and to bring my attention back to the incredible nature around me – become present with my surroundings. In the morning I saw the hut warden, and she asked me, “Did you free it up?” “I did,” I told her and she smiled.

Failure is life’s great teacher – it’s the bittersweet elixir we must all swallow at some point. It’s the trek up the mountain, only to realise that sometimes we must take an alternative route. Failure is necessary for success (the most successful people in life have failed many times) as it shapes us into better human beings with stronger values and a greater sense of empathy towards others. And those who allow failure to destroy them, who give up on their careers, relationships and mental-wellbeing, they have missed the greatest lesson that life can teach us: that the past is written and there’s no need to repeat it. In fact, now you can write the greatest chapter of your life.