My Ten Best Tips for Failing Spectacularly

by - Monday, August 11, 2014




I started this last week, when it was on theme. I apparently fail on timeliness (I know you are shocked), but I still like this one, so I am posting it late anyway.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” - Robert F. Kennedy

Everyone is scared of failing. Of their career faltering, of their relationships imploding, of their choices falling apart. Last year, my career dreams really came apart, and now a year later, I highly recommend a healthy dose of failure. In fact, I am weirdly proud of the whole thing. And most everyone I know has had a failure or two (other than the Boy, but now he has to grapple with that all the time). If you aren't failing, then maybe you aren't doing enough, taking enough risks, being vulnerable enough.

In other words, get out there and fail. But if you are going to do it, do it big, because the way you handle and recover from these moments will change your life and how you see yourself more than any "achievement" ever will.

10. Blame Yourself- What?!? I mean it. Sometimes the situation or person or communication was just wrong, but if the failure blindsided you, than you have a whole bunch of things to learn from the situation. Have the courage to think NOT about what you could have done differently (dude, it's over), but how you would want to approach similar challenges in the future. Even if that means learning to identify that something is wrong before it comes back around to smack you in the face with the harsh truth. Learn something from it, because the only way to truly fail is to stop growing.

9. Go ahead and do that crazy thing (as long as it is not hard drugs)- Reunite with seratonin.The happy chemicals in your brain markedly drop off after a big failure, so it isn't just a silly bad attitude. You might just really feel that bad. Do things that will make you feel happy. Prioritize your happiness. I firmly believe that the best years are also often the hardest. Some of the toughest years of my life are also loaded with some of the greatest memories. They go together, and things should get harder as you go. We get this idea that eventually the steep hill into adulthood will plateau into something more comfortable, but I think that the challenges are what make life good, push our creativity, and deny us the lazy excuses to forget about how rare and meaningful most moments are. So go on that crazy trip. Apply for jobs you are never going to get. Waste a whole day making something you decide later to throw out. Go out to that club that seems way too cool for you (but for goodness sake, take someone with you). Anything that makes you feel better is fair game, as long as it doesn't kill brain cells, because you need those.

8. Don't hide, shame never helped anybody- This one is so important, and I know it is hard for me. I hate to feel like people are looking at me, because I hate that level of vulnerability. If you have really had a solid trip and fall, people are going to look. For all sorts of reasons. When you try to pack things away so that others won't see them, try to hide away so you don't have to have that conversation, you are really setting yourself up with baggage you may have to carry around forever. That knowitall or schadenfreude-friend really is doing you a favor, because facing up to it, and eventually being able to do it with humor, grace, and maybe a little bit of wisdom, will hep you cast off those burdens teeny piece by piece. If you treat it like something to be ashamed of, then you have to stay ashamed of it. If you are just honest, you can move on more fully.

7. Mark the difference- The trope of the post-break-up haircut is only played out because it is overfilled with follicle wisdom. Looking back may help you learn, but you will trip if you don't pay more attention to where you are going. It's ok to unfollow friends of your old significant other or to block former co-workers who weren't friends enough to check in afterwards. You don't need to know what they are doing, and you definitely don't need to think about their opinions of what you are doing. It's also okay to get a mohawk or a tattoo or to finally stop going home all the time. Turn the page in a way you can see, but I promise you won't even notice it within a few months.

6. Set goals. LOTS of goals- Just because it turns out that traveling to Hawaii by car didn't work doesn't mean nothing will. Your car will still take you all  Failure to fulfill a goal leaves you feeling helpless, like you can't do anything or that what you can do doesn't have value. Nonsense! If you aren't the kind of person who usually has a planner (so, crazy), go buy one. Every morning, set some goals. Even if the goal is meet one new person or exercise for 20 minutes or only cry twice, little successes (or checking something off in that planner) builds your confidence exponentially. Even if you don't know what the big goal is going to be (become a professional interpretive dancer, fall in love again, graduate with a degree in quantitative physics), you can start setting small goals that will help you self-evaluate. If it is a goal you keep setting and fulfilling, congratulations, you have discovered a priority! No matter what, little successes add up, and if you can't do a lot yet, start here.

5. Accept the love that people offer you-When stuff with grad school fell through, I wouldn't have gotten through it without the Boy (and not just because he remained gainfully employed. I felt really ashamed and unworthy of him because he has his shit together, and I am like the Pig Pen of human nonsense. I couldn't be gladder that I accepted his support as well as the support of my brother (the first person who showed up after the fact), mom, dad, and some extended family. Take the damn hug, because it won't be that long before you are the one offering it. People love you, and even when you are at your lowest, it always gives you somewhere positive to start.

4. Go ahead and take another risk. What's the worst that can happen? This is the beautiful part of a good solid, spectacular fail. The worst that can happen, already has. You are still here, your skin hasn't melted off, you still find things funny, your grandma still loves you. What has changed is that you know things about yourself some never learn and you are free of a fear you will eventually grow back. So do it now. Whatever it is that maybe seems a little bit crazy, now is the time to do it. This comes with a caveat- this does not apply to love, and it won't heal your wounds. It takes advantage of the freedom that comes with vulnerability, but it won't make you any less vulnerable. Basically, the only thing that can do that is time and your will to keep pushing for victories. If you find yourself in a chapel being married by Elvis in the next three months, you have probably taken a wrong turn (any other time, I support this behavior). On the other hand, you want to try something new? Time to try it.

3. Do things for other people- Show some gratitude for what you have by paying it forward. If the mistake or failure was your fault, apologizing is a good first step. Then, do help somebody who has it worse off than you, because there are still plenty of people that is true for. If nothing immediately comes to mind, start thinking about problems you see in the world that you could help solve, and then start working on solving them. Nothing kills your whining like helping at a shelter or raising money so kids in other countries can have clean water. And really, if you can get you to stop whining, you don't have to listen to whining anymore! Big bonus!

2. Just start saying yes to anything that comes along, because you can- With a big change in plans comes a big opportunity to just do things that will make you happy. So do them. Feel sad for people who are so stuck on their path that they don't get to explore all the meandering routes off the highway, because that is really where the fun is (unless you are in Ohio, because the highlight really is the rest stop). Use the opportunities to keep you moving and to get involved in what you want to be doing, instead of what you should be doing. My cousin Ben took a couple of hits in his college career,and with the help of twitter and his deep knowledge and love of Penn State sports, hestarted a career as a sports journalist and is now kicking ass at it.

1. Do it- Failing is scary and horrible. Failing also frees you from all sorts of limits you have already placed on yourself.You will never know your own strength and flexibility without it. Stop thinking about failing as a thing to avoid or be ashamed of. It's a thing we do in big and little ways all the time, and we should, because it is one of the best things we can do as human beings, as long as we keep trying. I hope I can have the courage as a parent to let my kids fail, and I am really grateful that my parents did, even if it sucked. This is why I love teaching art. It's teaching about all the beauty and use and wonder in failing. It's about recovering what is worth it and being ok with throwing away the rest. So just do it, or at least don't be so afraid of it, because the time afterward is so horrible and lovely all at once.

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