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An in Depth Guide to Figuring Out Why You’re Failing

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Here’s something we all know about failing, it’s a process with an ending that we all want to avoid. Failure, contrary to popular belief, isn’t just an undesirable ending, It’s also a terrible beginning. It easily metastasizes into guilt, shame, anxiety, self-doubt, and depression; all of which inevitably lead to more failure. But what is the process of failing exactly, and how do you find out how and why you’re engaged in it?

The human mind is evolutionarily attuned to failure since it can equate to the potential for danger. Therefore failure is much more noticeable to us than success. So while you may feel like you are failing in one area of life at any given time, it’s likely that you are also succeeding in some other area. Maybe things aren’t so great in your love life, but you’re doing a great job with your fitness regimen. Maybe your career isn’t where you want it to be, but you’ve cultivated amazing relationships.

So what separates success and failure? Since failing is a process, then it stands to reason that so is succeeding. At a very high level it comes down to one thing: differing patterns of action. A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure. A pattern of action that yields the result you want is successful. Looking at what makes you successful is a great way to figure out how to avoid failure.

There are at least three implications inherent in the sentence: “A pattern of action that gives you the results you want is successful.” Let’s look at them one by one.

  1. A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – If succeeding in life were as simple as repeating one successful action over and over, the world would be a much simpler place. As it is, an adaptable pattern of action is necessary to reach your goals. Whenever you are successful it is because you are flexible enough to adapt to the ever changing situations you are engaged in.
  2. A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – When you achieve success, it is always because you take action. Success without effort is called luck, and it’s not something one can meaningfully strive for. Working towards something actively is the only way to actually reach it.
  3. A pattern of action that yields the results you want is successful – Taking action is only useful when it is towards a specific goal. This means that a measurable goal of some kind is built into the definition of success. Moreover that goal must be something you want which is of value to you.

“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” – Zig Ziglar

So what does this say about failing and how you can identify why it’s happening? Since we’ve already looked at the elements of success, let’s look at the definition of failure using the same framework:

  1. A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Some patterns of action work better than others. When trying to succeed it’s important to recognize when the patterns you find yourself engaging in are not working, and to make changes to those patterns appropriately. Change is the key word here: If you are failing and refusing to make changes, your failure is assured. It is also important to view failing as an opportunity. Any failed strategy can be safely ruled out and learned from if one has the openness and flexibility to change.
  2. A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Inaction is the most insidious form of failure. Doing nothing breeds feelings of failure just as strongly as working in the wrong direction, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what you could be doing differently. It is also the most surefire way to bring about actual failure since no one ever accidentally stagnates into success.
  3. A pattern of action that yields undesirable results is a failure – Failure to reach a specified goal is disheartening, but as with all things, it can give you information about what to do differently to keep you from failing. However, the failure to specify a specific and theoretically achievable objective is catastrophic. A blurry target can never be hit. If you fail to carefully spell out your goals, then there is no possible way to actually reach them. In that same vein, if your goals are things you don’t actually desire, then even your success in reaching them will fit the definition of failure.

“I have to believe that when things are bad I can change them.” – James J. Braddock

If this sounds deceptively simple than that’s because it is. But it is not only a roadmap away from failure, it’s also the basis of individual character development. Considering the twin definitions of success and failure can give you a deep understanding of what is going wrong whenever you find yourself not progressing towards your goals.

The implications are clear:

  • Set goals that are inspiring and attainable. Aim high, but be sure that whatever goal you have can be broken down into things you can actually accomplish. Focusing on the actions you can take to bring about success keeps you focused on the day and not on the seeming impossibility of your goal.
  • Work hard to bring about the outcomes you want. Do not fall victim to failure by inaction. It’s the most surefire path to regret.  
  • Above all cultivate flexibility. The ability to change is what allows even your failures to breed future success.

In the end, much of our success or failure is dependent upon things not entirely under our control, and no one lives a life unmarred by failure of any kind. We can still, however, strongly contribute to enhancing the likelihood of one over the other. That may make it sound like a nudge is the best you can do, but it’s important to remember that a nudge is the difference between a glass shattered on the floor and one sitting whole on a table.

Life, in its endless complexity and unpredictability, offers no guarantees. Hope arises with the understanding that failure is not something that happens to you, it is something that you either contribute to or combat, as is success. Careful observing your patterns of action will tell you which one you’re doing.

Just as looking to your successes can show you why you’re failing, looking to your failures can tell you how to succeed.

Khemit Bailey is a writer, entrepreneur, and devoted purveyor of the idea that fiction has the power to transform our lives for the better. He loves film in particular and gives free personalized recommendations in his spare time here. Khemit writes about fiction and personal character development at The Character Arc blog, and regularly waxes about those same topics on the FYMP Podcast which he co-hosts.

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The 3 Types of Confidence You Need to Know and Understand

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We’ve all heard it before, confidence is everything. Those that seem to have it, have it all. They, themselves, are not necessarily perfect human beings, but they seemingly have the charisma to attract whatever they want in life. (more…)

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3 Simple Tips to Strengthen Your Emotional Intelligence for Better Relationships

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Relationships are challenging. They make you examine yourself from all angles, and that can be triggering. For example, have you ever had a friend or significant other say something that sparked an argument instantly—only to find out you misheard what they said in the first place? (more…)

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If You Want to Avoid Failure Once and for All, Ask Yourself These 4 Questions

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You just invested in yourself and in your business. You are taking massive action but the results are just not clicking yet. While everyone is making 10X, 20X, and even 100X ROI on their initial investment, you have made $0 return. Failure is starting to overcast your bright shining positive attitude and you are feeling the pain and shame of it. (more…)

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3 Simple Hacks That Can Recharge Your Willpower and Help You Perform Better at Work

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How many times did you wake up feeling like you could conquer the world? You set ambitious goals for the day, you put on your best attire and walked out the door with a big smile on your face but eventually, life took over. Traffic, emails, work, family, and everything else you have around slowly but steadily started to drain your energy and made you feel exhausted.

You run out of battery, and the only solution that seemed viable was to rely on more caffeine. When that stopped working, all the temptations around you started to look much more appealing, and that sense of drive and commitment you had before slowly faded away. This is you running out of willpower.

Willpower: what is it? Why is it limited?

The American Psychology Association describes willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” In the book “The Willpower Instinct”, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, explains how every person’s willpower is limited, and slowly depletes throughout the day. The more “willpower challenges” you face, the quicker your reserve drains. Dr. McGonigal divided the different types of willpower challenges you might encounter in three categories:

  • I will: We face this type of challenge whenever we should do something, but we simply don’t feel like getting it done right now.
  • I won’t: We face this challenge when we try to resist temptation, or we try to keep cool in stressful situations.
  • I want: This is a particular type of challenge where we keep track of our long term goals, dreams, and desires. In this instance, we feel like we should take action right now to come one step closer to the goal. 

It’s easy to recognize it when you face a willpower challenge because you literally “feel it in your body.” Imagine being really hungry and walking in front of a bakery. The sight and the smell of pastries quickly triggers an “I won’t” type of challenge, and it takes a severe amount of effort and energy to walk away.

Every time you manage to win one of those challenges, a little bit of your willpower reserve gets used. The more challenges you face daily, the harder it will be to stay true to your goals.

Can you train or recharge your willpower?

A growing body of research suggests that willpower should be considered a muscle. To strengthen it, you should exercise it regularly, but you should not overwork it. Therefore, we shouldn’t try to “be good” at all times. Instead, we should learn how to relax and recharge our willpower.

The general advice on how to improve willpower involves sleep, proper nutrition, and regular exercise. This broad and general recommendation is often not downright applicable by most, because it consists of changing various daily habits. Luckily, three very effective hacks have been discovered, that have an immediate effect on our willpower and take just a few minutes to apply.

Here are the 3 ways to refill your willpower reserves:

1. Focused breathing

Breathing, when done correctly, can stimulate the release of calming hormones while reducing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and catecholamines. To make this effective, you should deeply and slowly inhale through the nose for at least five seconds. Fill your belly with air first, then your chest, and when there’s no more space for air, still try to do tiny inhalations through the nose.

You should feel a pulling sensation around your neck and trapezius muscles. Once your lungs are full, try to hold the breath for five seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth for at least five seconds. If you repeat this process ten to twenty times, you should feel dramatically more relaxed. Use this method several times a day, especially when you’re experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety.

2. Reward yourself when you accomplish a micro goal

According to a recent study, frequent instant rewards can boost motivation, and therefore, willpower. Creating your own reward system can help you to accomplish your to-do list, and also resist temptations. Since every individual has different tastes, you should come up with creative ideas about the small and frequent rewards you will give yourself upon winning any willpower challenge.

You can see this hack in practice in Apps like the popular Duolinguo, where after completing each lesson you get presented with a chance to open a treasure chest. This rewarding system seems to keep the users much more likely to keep learning new lessons.

3. Taking cold showers

Your body has an autonomic response to cold water. Getting into a cold shower is a difficult (but minor) willpower challenge on its own. As I previously mentioned, winning a willpower challenge strengthens your willpower muscle. Having a morning cold shower, on top of having multiple health benefits, will set you up for a positive winning streak of further challenges.

High performance is the sum of many small habits. Successful people don’t have an unlimited reserve of willpower, but they do have a set of daily rituals that made them succeed. These three hacks are some of the most effective techniques to develop willpower, but some of them may not fit every individual. You should try to find the perfect mix of daily practices that best fits your lifestyle and likes, so that you can strengthen your willpower muscle and perform better at work.

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