Failure: In Theory and Practice

Have you ever failed so bad that you just wanted to hide? I did last night. I was in an interactive online coding bootcamp  lecture, which had been going on for two hours at that point. We were running a bit late, and the instructor let us know that our skills would be tested. He asked us if we felt we understood the lecture like the back of our hands. I shook my head. “Well, Kenneth, then let’s test you!” he replied.

We had tediously gone through closures, a core concept in JavaScript, and now there was going to be one last question. If I got it wrong then the whole class was going to have to start all over again. Great. Time to not fail. Here was my problem:

I was asked what the expected output would be. The correct answer is “1,2   1,2”, but that’s not what I said. Of course not. I knew in my mind that I had a 1 in 2 chance of getting it right. And brains do not like uncertainty. I switched between two possible answers again and again over 10 seconds of confusion, and finally opened my mouth. “It would print 1,2,3,4.” Silence. Shit.

What did my teacher do? Did he nudge me along the right path like most school teachers? Did he console me for being close to the right answer? Nope. Quite the opposite! He muted me. “What?” he said. “It looks like Kenneth cut out.”

Well, well, well. I had been silenced. These are the type of situations where you realize how failure actually feels. Every self-help book in existence urges you to push through failure, to just keep going, to keep that chin up. But when failure actually hits, it hurts. You can feel it. My stomach started to hurt and I could hear my brain repeating his phrase in my head on over and over again. Ouch, I thought.

Once you fail, it is really hard to get out of your head. You think of what you could have done differently. But really, that doesn’t matter. It’s just hindsight bias. Yet it still goes on. Luckily, though, time cures many ailments. When I woke up the following morning, I didn’t feel the failure quite as hard and it stopped bogging down my mind.

We all try to prepare to prevent this moment, but looking back I think that actual failure has a lot to teach us. We simply cannot learn to face the hardships of life by reading about them or thinking through them. We cannot know what Marcus Aurelius really went through in his daily stoic routines if we don’t do them ourselves. As the old saying goes, “The best teacher is experience.” I think that we all know this, but we are afraid. Afraid for our egos, afraid of public contempt, and, most of all, afraid of suffering.

Yet, what is the root of the suffering that comes from failure? According to Naval Ravikant, this suffering causes from the compliments we take which build up our egos, our personas. We take on these personas as “us,” even if they don’t reveal the true intricacies of our lives. We take on a “big weighty self image,” holding us up in times of plenty but destroying us when even a small amount of insults come. So, how can we alleviate this hurt? Can we lessen our suffering?

I don’t think that this is even the right question. I believe that we must prepare ourselves for failure. The more we go through it, the better we will be able going forward. Think of failure like cold showers. The first time you step in it sucks. It is terrible. Oh God, why is it so cold?! But then, you start to adapt. “This isn’t that bad,” you think to yourself. Then it becomes a challenge. How many days in a row can I choose to face my fears, overcome my anxiety? I think that this is how we should treat failure. What this lesson taught me more than anything is I need to fail more. I prepare too much and act too little. I want to challenge myself to be on the bleeding edge of my passion, and to do so requires many failures. The more I fail, the less I will feel it, the more failure will become natural to me. And once that happens, I might just be ready to create my Crazy Idea. I might be insane enough to ignore all the people who shout that what I am doing is foolish, will lead me nowhere, will waste my time . . . and follow my own heart.

 

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