I can only recall a few times in my life when I've failed in a way I was proud of. Things just didn't go right, but I was glad they happened -- my first relationship, the final paper for my college business ethics class, and the last race of my high school cross-country career -- all total failures but with time, what they had in common was a thin silver lining, a private everlasting grin, a piece of mind in knowing I could not have given any more effort even though I came short in attaining my goal. I left it all on the field.
The key is that I learned from these failures. I didn't walk away bitter or regretful but instead I was thankful they happened. For in the wake of these events, other things came to life. The advice of ancient Stoic scholars suddenly made sense to me:
Don't demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible.
The daily scribbles in my journal became conscientious markers of progress and insight rather than hungover Sunday ramblings. I had a perspective and a context to apply towards the rest of my life -- these failures plunged me forward.
Let me start with cross-country running.
The Los Angeles Mt. San Antonio College cross-country course is one of the hardest running courses in the country. Laden with steep hills and cascading switchbacks, any runner will tell you it is one of the toughest courses ever run. In my sophomore year of high school, I won the Southern California sectional, regional and state cross-country championships. I was a beast. I had the motor of a thousand trains and enjoyed endurance training in Colorado and Big Bear, California during the off-season.
A lot of people dislike running because it's painful on the knees, it doesn't provide visible health benefits, and it's perceived as boring. But in my youth, I used to run for the simple pleasure of figuring myself out. I thought that maybe if I ran one more mile, life's answers might pop into my head. I ran for those five seconds immediately following a race when I fell to the ground, gasping for air, delusional with exhaustion. That was my epiphany. That was when my body met my mind and the whole orchestra came to beautiful crescendo, as any artist or athlete will attest. I could train my lungs to perform at specific anaerobic levels and it was thrilling to watch my body adapt to the conditions and restraints of a grueling hill workout or tedious tempo run.
When my high school junior year began, I expected to have another successful season. I trained hard and followed the prescribed recipe for continued success. The first couple of races I ran incredibly strong -- but then something happened -- something I couldn't really explain. I began to run poorly, almost scared. My times were slow and I began to loathe the very act of toeing the starting line.
Physically, I have an innocent heart murmur, discovered in childhood. One of the valves in my heart beats with a strange whooshing noise but according to numerous doctors there is no cause for alarm. I deduced that since no major changes were made to my training regimen, the decline in my performance had to be the result of some unknown physical abnormality. I immediately forced my mother to make an appointment with the cardiologist, exaggerating the pain in my chest one day following a race. Day by day, I convinced myself that something was wrong. But on the day of the appointment, the tests confirmed that my heart was in fact healthy and normal, and ready to race.
Strangely enough, I think I wanted something to be wrong with me. I wanted a validated excuse for my deterioration. I wanted to blame my poor performance on an obstacle that didn't exist. I was literally creating the obstacle itself -- I was self-handicapping:
The self-handicapper, we are suggesting, reaches out for impediments, exaggerates handicaps, embraces a factor reducing personal responsibility for mediocrity and enhancing personal responsibility for success. One does this to shape the implications of performance feedback both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others (Jones & Berglas, 1978).
First studied extensively in 1978 by social psychologists Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas, self-handicapping is a behavioral phenomenon where one seeks to protect his or her image and competency by controlling various conditions of performance. Rather than face the slightest chance of disappointment from my coaches, family, and self, I created actual barriers to my own success -- by avoiding failure.
Years have passed since my competitive running days, but I've continued to encounter self-handicapping in college basketball, my education, and in the workplace. I'm growing up, and I'm now learning the fear to fail is natural, inevitable, and often times self-constructed.
By being out there, competing, taking a chance, just doing it, and then still making mistakes -- the easier it becomes to succeed. For every misstep amounts to a step.
It is the hardest lesson to learn, moments after a narrow defeat, that maybe I just wasn't good enough. That somebody is smarter, faster, stronger, or better than me. External success -- a good practice, a flattering comment, public recognition -- feeds my ego, but only for that moment. Failure is progress for the long haul.
Fall down seven times, get up eight.