Owning Up to Failure

On my long run on Sunday I was contemplating how I do or don’t own up to something when it doesn’t work – in other words, how well I deal with failure. I was also thinking about how I see failure dealt with (or not) in different situations.

I’ve done a lot of work in the philanthropic and investment community, and there are people and organizations that do amazing work. But when you take big risks, there will doubtless be failures along the way. Unfortunately for the rest of us, those are rarely discussed. Some organizations don’t even collect data on certain investments or projects, for fear of not seeing the intended impact and thus “failing.” There are so many lessons not being learned because of the fear of failure.

It happens in the “healthy living” blog world, too. A race doesn’t go according to plan. Healthy eating gets thrown out the window. A runner is sidelined due to injury. Things happen. Sometimes the main contributing factor is out of our control; the weather is particularly hot on race day, a pack of dogs attacks you on the trail (check out this month’s Runner’s World for a harrowing true story about that), or illness strikes in the middle of training.

But very often, at least for me, these sorts of setbacks are heavily influenced by my own behavior – lack of planning, under/over training, not practicing self-care, or whatever the case may be. And yet I, and it seems like many others, are scared to admit to our involvement in these “failures.”

Failure doesn’t have to be negative; instead, it can be a catalyst for change. By owning our failures and looking at them critically, we will be better able to succeed in the future. If I figure out that I undertrained for my race because fitting in training runs wasn’t a priority in a busy schedule, I know that by picking a shorter race distance, I’ll be better able to train effectively. If I simply blamed poor performance on the weather or just a “bad race day” or whatever, I could set myself up to fail again and again and again.

Whatever realm of the failure – time management, fitness, diet, career, relationships – it’s extremely helpful for me to take stock of my role in the outcome so I know how to take steps to change it.

It sounds like basic common sense, and it is. But so often we avoid facing failure directly because we are afraid of criticism, or “I told you so,” or the realization that we aren’t as good at something as we thought we were. At least I do this; I hope I’m not the only one.

While I was considering all of this from a philosophical level on Sunday, it all came home for me this morning. I got home late but forced myself to wake up early to get some chores done before class. Unfortunately, I didn’t leave quite enough time to get the biggest chore done – picking up my bike from the shop. Though there was still plenty of time to blog, Tweet, read, do some meal prep, meal plan, I didn’t think of any of that. I was annoyed at myself that I got up at all instead of getting some extra rest and I couldn’t settle down.

So I putzed around, took a shower, and went to the train station where I arrived to my class 40 minutes early without my laptop or a book to read. I also didn’t have a water bottle or a snack. Major fail.

Why did this all happen? Lack of planning and an inability to take a step back and assess the situation. I am not someone that wants or needs to be productive all the time. That time before the train could have been just as well spent with a cat on my lap and a cup of tea – but I couldn’t get to that point. I let my frustration overwhelm me.

But instead of just chalking it up to an unproductive morning, I’m reflecting on how I could have made things go more smoothly.

  • Checking my to do list would have given me ideas on quick tasks I could have done.
  • Getting a new book to read would have been good incentive for some down time.
  • Packing a snack and my water bottle the night before and putting them next to my purse would have ensured I had those things with me.

Reflecting doesn’t mean beating myself up about it. It doesn’t do me any good to lament the fact that I could’ve done more this morning and now I have to get everything done in a shorter amount of time. Instead, I took stock of the obstacles, brainstormed some ways to overcome them, and moved on. you imagine if we could do that on an organizational or political level? The world would be a different place.

This is a little out there for a Wednesday afternoon, but it’s what’s on my mind so I figured I’d share!


2 thoughts on “Owning Up to Failure

  1. I try not to use the word failure in the context of sport and training, or for that matter most things. Treat anything that falls short of the goal as a learning experience to build on. Failure always sounds negative, a learning experience is positive…what do you think?

    • I totally debated this when writing this post. I think the sentiment is the same, no matter what words you use. I agree that failure has a negative connotation but really the definition is “a lack of success.” (I just had to look up the specific definition). So I think failure is always a learning experience. If saying failure makes someone feel bad, then I am all for using a different word! I just decided to try to take it back into the non-negative realm. 😉

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