I’ll stand by that assertion.
If you’ve driven a car, you’re a driver.
If you’ve surfed, you’re a surfer.
And, if you’ve failed?
You’re a failure. For ever.
Great. End of newsletter.
Only it’s not that simple.
The words fail and failure come with a mountain of baggage.
Shame, embarrassment and humiliation are feelings we experience when we’ve failed.
At a sensory level, people frequently panic, need to fight or run away from the feelings that show up when they’ve failed.
I come across soooo many people who tell me that they feel like a failure. There’s a problem though. Though ‘failure’ shows up in the dictionary as a noun, it’s more an action.
Failure has an interesting word origin. It comes from ‘failer’ - as in one who has failed.
All of these point to lacking, to deficiency. It also seems to suggest that you are what you do. If that’s the case, I’m a speeder, a pooper, a parent, a therapist, a comic writer, a serious writer, a failing writer, a cyclist… I could likely make a pretty long list of things that I do and call myself that. You likely could too.
It would perhaps give a hint of who you are, a whiff of what your character is like. And it wouldn’t be complete. When you decide that since you’ve failed at something, you’re now ‘a failure’, it gives a very limited, very incomplete picture of who you are. Unless of course you need to be successful with every action and endeavour.
What does it even mean to fail? When defining something, I like to start with word origins.
The first thing that stands out here is that the original, Old English term for failure, abreooan failed. It was replaced by fail. I think it may be fun to see ones shortcomings as an abreooan. It makes the word fail seem heavy, sophisticated, exotic and spicy.
The Latin origin of failure is interesting too. The notion that we’ve stumbled, fallen or have been tricked, duped or cheated somehow is really helpful. If we feel like a failure, it means that we’ve been tripped up, tricked, duped or cheated. I think that when we fail, we’ve tricked, duped or cheated ourselves. I’ll return to this soon as the notion of duping yourself is really central moving forward.
But first? It’s important to note that once we reach the point of fail, we’re at the end. This is liberating. And yet, many who have failed and ‘feel like a failure’ have big, urgent feelings in their bodies. They look panicked. This seems to be remarkably foolish. If I drop a glass by mistake, I’ve failed to hold it. Once it has shattered and there’s glass everywhere, the glass is done. It’s no longer a glass. The integrity of the glass has failed. No need to panic over a broken glass. No need to cry over spilt milk. What to do next? Clean up. Get on with the rest of living. Once you feel like a failure, it’s time to relax. The emergency is over. You didn’t rise to the occasion. It’s done. There’s probably nothing real to worry about.
But people worry. The sensations that come with the disappointment of falling short are not those we face in life or death situations. And it can feel like a matter of life or death. What the hell might someone do in these situations? First just notice the sensations and feelings you are experiencing on a physical level - heart rate, blood pressure, breath, nervous tension, etc. Next, notice how quickly you start coming up with stories associated with these sensations. Notice how quickly a feeling of shame or embarrassment becomes ‘I’m a failure.’ Pay more attention to the physical sensations and less attention to the story.
Let’s take a look at how we can create new stories around failure. In order to do this, let’s take a look at what it means to fail. To fail has a really simple definition these days.
The most simple definition, that to fail is to be unsuccessful in achieving ones goal is perhaps the best way to look at this term. This ties well into the origin of the word as well. The issue at hand? Goals. Who sets them? What are they? And, when we have goals, are they ones that we have the necessary resources to achieve?
Failure is the gap between intention and execution.
A lot of failure I hear about comes from people believing they ‘should have’ known better. That knowing better? That’s a knowledge resource. If you don’t have it, you can’t know better. As such, the person who duped you was you. By not knowing what you don’t know, you end up duping yourself into thinking that you have everything that you need to achieve a goal.
What to do next?
If you ‘feel like a failure’ and are overwhelmed by the feeling, it might be helpful to look at the goal you were working towards. Did you choose it? Was it given to you? Did you have the resources you need, the time or were you over resourced?
Did you have a clear goal? Did you even have a goal at all?
Without clearly stated goals there is no way of knowing whether you are successful or not. Without clearly stated goals, it’s really difficult to know how big the gap is between what’s expected and what’s delivered. Having stories of ‘feeling like a failure’ with no clear outcome that you’re striving for is the perfect trap for a perfectionist.
It’s also a great way to hide. Set unclear goals. Get disappointed by the results. Become overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and shame. Tell failure story to yourself. Give up. Rinse, repeat.
Feeling like a failure is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves when we experience the sensations we have when we come up short of a goal or make a mistake.
I have a few questions around failure. What is ‘a failure?’ Is that a role? A title you earn? A job description? A measure of your value?
How does one become ‘a failure’? Is there a program, course of study or certification for this role? What professional associations represent all of the ‘failures’ in the world?