how to figure out why you are failing

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.


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