What is failure for you?

Written on 11th January, 2013

One thing I realised over the holiday period is that my definition of failure in a couple of things had changed considerably since the year before.

In particular, in the year of 2012 I built up my gym routine to the point where for the final 3 months, I went to the gym consistently 5 times per week. During the holidays, I “failed” with my 5 times per week routine, but this meant that I still went to the gym 2-3 times a week during that time.

Similarly with blogging, I’m now aiming to write 2-3 times per week, and so for me to “fail” with blogging means that I write once a week.

The role of failure and imperfection in building skills

Failure is part of success, an integral part. - Bill Walsh

I’ve written before that I believe imperfection is a key part of building habits and gaining skills. To sit down and decide a new goal or habit and expect to flawlessly go ahead and achieve it is unproductive. Instead, I think the best plan is to expect to miss the mark several times along the way.

The key to simultaneously expecting imperfection and not allowing it to get you down and cause you to bail on your idea, is perspective. For me, once I take a moment to realise just how far I’ve come, despite the fact I’ve failed at this moment, that’s when it’s easy to still be happy with that failure and then move forward towards being better the next week.

If you’ve been blogging once a month for 6 months, then you step it up to twice a month and achieve that for the first two months but fall short the third, don’t be too disappointed. Remember that eight months ago you weren’t even blogging at all, and this ‘failure’ probably just means you’ve blogged once a month. It’s always a process of gradual improvement.

Your failure is highly individual

We constantly compare our beginning to someone elses middle. Our middle to someone elses end. And when you do that youll find that youre never, ever satisfied. Youll never, ever be good enough. Youll always struggle to celebrate your accomplishments. - Matt Cheuvront

One of the hardest things I’ve found to grasp and be aware of, is that to each person, failure has a different definition. We are all at different stages, and our journeys are very different too. As Matt Cheuvront says, we’re always comparing ourselves to others when it makes zero sense to do that.

A most important thing with this, is that if you feel like you have failed with something, make sure that failure is your own and not someone else’s. If you’re hitting the gym twice a week and meet someone who is going to the gym every day, don’t let that make you feel like a failure. Our own goals and habits are completely individual to us. I think one of my biggest satisfactions comes from continually improving my personal bests, whether it’s running or lifting weights, blogging or speaking. Once you get into a habit of beating yourself continually, you can make some amazing progress.

Adjusting your definition of failure over time

The other fascinating thing I’ve found, is that in just one year you can dramatically change what failure means for you. You can go from your highest success scenario becoming your “failure” scenario. This is very encouraging for me. It means that for example, in a year from now I can gradually work towards daily blogging, and by that point my “failure” might be that I only blog 3 times per week, which is my current success scenario.

It was a reassuring thought for me over the holidays that despite the fact I felt like I was failing by not keeping up my routine of going to the gym 5 times per week, I was still going 2-3 times a week and this was a lot more than I was doing a year earlier. So, the key is to think about the line you are creating rather than the individual dots.

Do you often accidentally allow failure to get you down without realising how far you have come? Do you sometimes compare your journey to others? I’ve been a victim of these things before, and I’m working to change that, and make real progress in my own individual path. I’d love any thoughts you have on this topic.

Photo credit: Behrooz Nobakht