A well-known secret of success is the acceptance that failure is often an initial ingredient. Students of success stories invariably come upon the maxims “try and try again,” and “there is no failure except the failure to try.” It almost makes failure sound like a good thing.
One has to be careful, however, with these nuggets of wisdom that populate the “self-help” world. Sometimes we read the words, but we miss the meaning.
In 2nd grade I was having trouble with math. My usual high marks were being replaced with far uglier ones and I was frustrated. Everything sounded easy enough when my teacher, Mrs. Cole, explained it, but at quiz time it appeared that none of the types of questions we had reviewed were on the page. It seemed as if the she was teaching one thing and testing on another. Mrs. Cole, had her own concern with my performance. I was an A student who was averaging a C in math and the series of defeats were taking a toll on my motivation in all subjects.
So on each quiz, just under the letter grade, she wrote — See Me. The suggestion compounded my 7-year-old frustrations. What kind of help was that? Of course I was watching her, did she believe that I wasn’t paying attention? That I was just lazy or disinterested? Those annoying words appeared no less than five times on my math work. I even watched her more closely during math, but it had no magical powers to improve my grades.
Mrs Cole’s concern did not abate and she asked my mother for a conference. I had no worries about the meeting. I knew I was working hard, my mother knew I was working hard, and I was hopeful that mom would set her straight on the fact that my attention span and focus were not at issue.
Mom returned from the conference, a little half-smile on her face as she began the discussion. I thought it for certain that she had “schooled” Mrs Cole on the proper mechanics of teaching. We sat down at the kitchen table and she set out five of my quizzes. The ugly C’s stared at me in red ink and the hateful and useless “See Me” laughed from just below.
“I have a question,” Mom started and again the little smile returned. “These comments on your quizzes…”
“Did you see Mrs. Cole?”
“Oh not you too! Of course I saw her, she stands in the front of the room and I sit in the front row.”
My mother laughed. I didn’t see any humor and I wondered if she had slipped a gear.
“No,” she said through the laughter. “Did you go and See Her? Did you talk to her?”
I was confused.
“It doesn’t say Come Talk to Me. It says See Me.”
Mrs Cole had shared her concern and belief that I was avoiding her. Mom she saw the quiz remarks of See Me and recalled my complaints about Mrs Cole’s less that helpful comments. Comments I had not relayed verbatim but had reported with interpretation—“she thinks I’m not paying attention.” Mom explained the confusion to my teacher and then to me.
I’d like to believe that, in the future, Mrs Cole offered greater clarity in her notes. I did improve my math grade, but found I never really took to the subject. I never gained an appreciation for the suggestion that A/3 + Bx2 could equal anything but a need for psychological evaluation.
The more important lesson, however, is that it is easy to completely know the meaning of what is communicated AND to completely miss the point.
Like advice on failure.
There is a lot of real estate between failing properly and failing because of a misunderstanding of “how” successful people fail. People who fail successfully don’t trip over the edge and they don’t slide on their backsides. No—they jump— full throttle, all-in, and without compunction over the possibly of a painful landing.
People who fail unsuccessfully, do so by trying to minimize the risk before they ever reach the edge. And in doing so, the failure begins before the journey.
And there are three things that will undo potential success every time:
1. If/Then Statements: You have a goal, you outline a plan, but but but execution hinges on a series of “if/then” statements. “Well before I do A, let me see what happens with B.” There is a crazy and pointless rationalization that accompanies these statements— “I don’t want to get started because I may be interrupted.” You could equally call this the “Delay of Game” factor. You have all the right plans with all the right intention sans one—the belief that thing (A) can’t start until tomorrow because you’re waiting to see how today (B) goes. So it’s always “today” preventing “tomorrow.”
2. Celebrate Big—Judge Small: Every study on motivation demonstrates that small rewards spaced out at milestones increase motivation and performance. If you want the pigeon to push the lever repeatedly you can’t reward it once a year. But those who give up on goals and intentions tend to believe they can celebrate only the big “win” and they fail to set smaller milestones of progress. They also beat themselves up over the smallest digressions and set-backs. So they’ll look for a reward only at the end, but they’ll crush themselves on every mistake. The result of this practice is a constant feeling of “failure.” So instead of continuing and really having a chance to fail big—they fail themselves small and often long before any real conclusion has been reached.
3. Compare Yourself to Others: These goals and intentions are yours. They are your journey, they are your hopes and dreams. How you perform, when you reach them, the time it takes, these are all personal measurements. Yet, many will measure their successes at every step with the person next to them. The guy in the gym who lifts more, the co-worker who lost more weight, the writer who wrote the better-selling book, the family member who got the big raise, the friend who found a “soul mate.” The success of others should only serve as motivation, not as punishment and not as a reason to quit. Trust me, the person who lost more weight than you…is probably comparing themselves to someone who has never had to lose weight.
My advice is forget these things. Don’t worry about others. Focus on you. Do something everyday to get to your goal. Reward the wins and don’t punish yourself for the set-backs. It’s your life and how others race the race is less important than how you enjoy the journey.
And if you need one more thing to write at the top of your goal list, make it this:
A Year From Now You’re Going to Wish You Started This Goal Today!
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