Rant 49 September 2008: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Dear readers, I have failed. Indeed, although I wish “Danger” was my secondary moniker, I’m afraid that “Failure” is really my middle name.

If you are like most people, you are probably also a failure, many times over. You have screwed up so many times from birth to this present moment that your cumulative idiocies could pile up to the moon – before themselves breaking away, clumping together, and forming a satellite of their own.

But don’t be discouraged! Let me explain.

We cannot learn, it seems, without some error. Trying, falling short, and subsequent correction are the essential components of progress. You would assume that failure is always a negative event. Sure, it often feels like crap at the time. Winning is generally more fun than losing. An A++ on a test is generally more immediately gratifying than an F-minus circled in red and ground into the page with a teacher’s pen hand heavy with punitive intent, as if to say, “I wish I could stab you with this crimson stylus for your offenses against grammar and good taste, such that the red of my Marker of Justice would mingle with your intellectual infidel’s blood!”

You’d assume, naturally, that successful and happy people have strung life’s victories and accolades together like a string of celebratory cranberries on a Christmas tree. They must be lucky, or blessed, or some other adjective that indicates that such successes are just born that way. The secret to happiness is only accessible to a fortuned few. The rest of us supposedly trundle along in lumpen, troll-like fashion, stumbling from one screwup to the next, like an inebriated hippo that has recently discovered bipedalism.

You would be wrong.

In April, not long after quitting my job, I made three funny little discoveries on separate occasions. Two were in the form of discarded books. In my urban neighbourhood, the street fairies provide a cleanup crew of impeccable speed and precision. For instance, one day at 7:00 am, I put out two old screen doors for garbage pickup. I walked back into the house, turned to close the door, and noticed an old man retrieving the doors by balancing them precariously on a bicycle, one door teetering on each pedal. Yes, by 7:05 an octogenarian was violating the laws of physics – but on the plus side, at least the doors found a good home (assuming, that is, that other laws of physics did not come back to bite him a few blocks down).

Anyway, so, because of the active ministrations of the street fairies, goods for disposal are often placed curbside, and offer a rich trove of archaological interest concerning the hobbies and activities of the residents. There may be old furniture, pots and pans, bric-a-brac and tchotchkes of all varieties, and then of course there are always books. Indeed, I cleared an entire bookshelf – easily over 200 volumes of dry academic tomes – in a few hours. Such is the joy of living in a neighbourhood composed largely of older, thrifty hoarders and younger intelligentsia. Whether it’s books or old copper pipes, beheaded Barbie dolls or ancient paint cans, one can be assured that one’s discarded items will not be wasted in landfill.

As ye give, so shall ye receive, and it was thus that I stumbled across two serendipitous publications on the sidewalk. The first was Gail Sheehy’s classic post-Passages followup, Pathfinders. This chubby little paperback picked up where Sheehy’s first book left off, surveying thousands of people to figure out what our social role models could and should have in common. Helpfully, the first few chapters provided a nicely bulleted list of the secrets to happiness: find meaning, love people, blah blah, and here’s the kicker: seek and learn from failure.

Yes, that’s right – the most successful, the happiest, the most satisfied people were fuckups!! In fact, many had gone off the rails with astounding speed and explosiveness, splattering their lives all over the tracks and taking out several innocent bystanders along the way. Counterintuitively, their failures and difficulties were necessary in order for them to find success.

As Sheehy writes:

People of high well-being are not isolated from difficult passages. On the contrary, they are the most likely to report having confronted at least one important passage or transition and having made a major change in their outlook, values, personal affiliations or career. This contradicts the widespread assumption that a consistent life with no great changes or surprises is the most rewarding. Far from it.

Let me make this clear: failure was a fundamental part of success and happiness. Success needs failure. According to Sheehy, what differentiated successful, happy, fulfilled role models (SHFRM) from deadbeats, self-identified losers and bringdowns (DLB) were several things:

  1. SHFRM responded to failure positively: as an opportunity for learning and growth. DLB, in comparison, could not seem to get out of the rut and would fail the exact same way multiple times. Sure, SHFRM got pissed and sad like normal humans, but then they got even or got smarter.
  2. SHFRM eventually found in their failures a meaning of some kind, and would, after a suitable period of time, interpret negative life events as valuable in some way. DLB would forever dwell on the meaninglessness of bad things, and get stuck on how horrible and cruel the world was. (An example of this is the old guy that sits at the end of the bar complaining about how the world has gone to shit since he was in high school.) As Sheehy writes, DLB “usually describe their failures as destructive experiences. Obstacles in general are seen as evidence of their own inadequacies or of the selective injustice with which they are treated by life.” Conversely, SHFRMs “recast the experience in their minds, erased the outcome from the error column, and come to see it as a plus.”
  3. SHFRM used their errors and life’s vagaries as opportunities for self-reflection and growth. They would often take responsibility (in a productive way) for improving the situation. They would try to find their mistakes and fix them for next time. If the bad situation had been out of their control (e.g. a sudden illness, getting hit by a bus), they eventually decided that shit happened and try to get on with things in their new, altered universe. DLB, in contrast, would blame others and lapse into a stasis of sulking. They would make no gestures towards rectifying their own screwups.
  4. For many SHFRM, failure was a result of trying new things. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” was the motto for many of them.
  5. SHFRM aren’t afraid of many things. It isn’t that they’re adrenaline junkies who like skydiving in the dark while sticking their face into a bucket of rattlesnakes, but rather that they’re settled into a state of security and openness with themselves. The majority of our significant fears are existential: fear of failure (or fear of success); fear of disappointing others; fear of shame; fear of wasting one’s life; fear of being unloved/unlovable; fear of “is this all there is?” etc. In contrast, SHFRM, write Sheehy, “are more likely to say ‘I feel secure enough to stop running and struggling, to relax and open myself to new feelings.’” Such a level of security usually only comes from confronting and overcoming things that one fears, or discovering that the existential consequences of error are quite manageable.

Success, then, is the tip of the iceberg, with failure its fat, bloaded undercarriage. Success rides on failure. Recent data from the US General Social Survey suggests that older people are generally happier than younger people, despite (no doubt) having experienced more of the word’s suckitude.

Here is where this all becomes relevant.

In June, I competed in a local grappling tournament, against 2 women from another school whom I had come to know. Let’s call them 1 and 2. Both of them are lovely people and skilled fighters, but common rumour had it that I would be able to manage a victory against them both. Indeed, sparring against 2 a few weeks prior to the competition had resulted in me taking her back and putting a choke on within 30 seconds. Observing this, my teammates assured me that an easy victory was imminent.

And here’s exactly where the problem lay. You see, as one sports psychologist has put it, “wanting to win” is good. But “having to win” is bad – it puts a “parking brake” on performance. No matter how hard you try, if that parking brake is on, your performance is going nowhere. Suddenly, I was paralyzed by the threat of my own competence. What if I didn’t win? What if I couldn’t?

Being an underdog is a great position: nobody expects anything from you, so even if you succeed only moderately, it’s gravy. But being a defending champion suddenly feels like intense pressure. Some exceptional people thrive on it. Many elite athletes suck up pressure like a Super Big Gulp through a straw on a hot day. In general, though, the average person starts to crumble eventually.

I fretted and worried till my brain was one big hangnail. At night, I tossed and turned, rehearsing my game plan but getting stuck over and over, unable to visualize how I would proceed after a takedown, never mind win conclusively.

You can imagine where this all ended up. Unlike the movies, I did not end up pulling the wins out of my butt in a big finale. No, dear reader, I got pwn3d. In fact, although I whipped out a bitchin’ hip throw thanks to a few months of judo (which resulted in 2 hitting the mat with a teeth-grinding smack – and major high fives to her for even recovering from that assault to her verticality), you can pretty much see the moment on video in both matches when I simply decide, “Aw, fuck this.”

Afterward, my coach said reassuringly, “You fought great.”

“No,” I responded honestly, “I did not.” It was true. I had given up. I had not lost because of being outskilled, outmaneuvered, or out-lucked. I had defeated myself even before getting on the mat.

“I needed to fail,” I said to Coach.

“I know,” he said.


I explained the story a couple months later to the head of my judo club. His response was not so Zen.

“That was a very selfish thing,” he said. “Regardless of whether you could win, those women expected you to bring them a good fight, and you chose for your own egocentric reasons not to give it to them.”

*double gong*

Woah, man.

It’s now three months later and I’ve learned a great deal from my failure. The most important thing I’ve learned is simply that failure can be an amazing learning experience – if you allow it to be. And it’s OK to fail. The worst that happens is that some cute little girl grinds your face into the mat a bit, and you feel like a schmuck in front of a disapproving black belt, but in the long run, it’s rarely disastrous. Indeed, it’s necessary.

Sometimes our worst fears are those that will not and cannot actually occur. We fear the fear around them. We run away from the anxiety because to experience it is intolerable to us. But what if we went towards the anxiety, towards the fear? We have all experienced the sense of wanting to quit in a hard workout. We instinctively avoid bad feelings – quite sensible most of the time. Occasionally, however, we should go towards bad feelings, in order to push through them and come out on the other side less afraid. What if the bad thing happens? It may not. Or it may. In both cases, the outcome is very likely better than what one imagines.

I’m not arguing, of course, that we should seek out some nihilist state of despair, or wallow in our own whinerbabitude. Nor am I suggesting staying in a bad situation when our gut tells us to run. What I am saying is that under the right circumstances, we should, perhaps, turn and face the thing that inspires instinctive avoidance in us. In other words, seek purposeful discomfort. Or, if discomfort has sought us, meet it head-on. Allow yourself to experience it. Often, what we fear more is the discomfort itself, not what it signifies. We fear the sense of being out of control, of having sweaty palms or burning lungs or really having to pee.

The second book I picked up on the street was even more of a classic: Dale Carnegie’s twin works How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Written during an age when people had very good reason to worry about the world, the second book described in charmingly archaic but nevertheless pointedly clear language how foolish it is to worry.

Instead, Carnegie proposes, translate worry into productive energy: identify the problem clearly (instead of hiding from it or pretending it’s someone else’s problem); consider your options (generally with reasoning and research one can find a solution to most problems); decide on a course of action and then do it (as action is antithetical to impotent self-flagellation); and if all else fails (so to speak), lie back and think of England. He also explains how he would take a weekly account of his mistakes, writing down all his errors and considering how to rectify them. Over time, he notes, he made fewer mistakes overall, and the ones he did make were new. He learned and improved by observing without judgement and confronting the project of self-improvement in an honest, systematic, action-oriented way.

One of the most wonderful little gems in the book is this: live in day-tight compartments. Just as ships have water-tight compartments that close off to prevent flooding throughout the vessel, we should live in “day-tight” compartments that seal off the past and future.

Forget fretting about yesterday, or wondering what the future will bring. Of course, do consider past errors and how to correct them; and plan ahead. When the day ends, review it and think about what went wrong or right, and how to do better. Then put it to rest. But avoid constant rumination about “what if” and “what was”. Ask yourself: what can I do, right now? Today? This moment? Seal off the boundaries between “what was”, “what if” and “what might be” and focus on “what is.“ When the day is over, let it end. File away your tally of mistakes and plans, and begin anew.

So often I hear of dieters who have one indiscretion with a bag of chips and spend the next several days face-down in subsequent truckloads of fried foods, or excoriating themselves like medieval penitents. Or perhaps someone falls off the wagon a bit with the workouts, then figures “Oh what the hell” and cultivates sloth for the next month because sod it, it’s ruined anyway.

We all screw up. Learn how and why you screwed up, and seek to fix it. Write down your mistake so it’s there in wiggly lines in front of you. Name it. Face it. Observe it calmly. Reason through a solution for next time. And then most importantly, TAKE ACTION. If you are not meeting your fitness and nutrition goals, what can you DO, RIGHT NOW, to fix that?

The third thing I found by accident wasn’t a book, but a blog. Failblog.org reminds me daily that to err is human, and to fail: hilarious.

BTW here are Sheehy’s Ten Hallmarks of Wellbeing.

  1. My life has meaning and direction.
  2. I have experienced one or more important transitions in my adult years, and I have handled these transitions in an unusual, personal or creative way.
  3. I rarely feel cheated or disappointed by life. .
  4. I have already attained several of the long-term goals that are important to me. .
  5. I am pleased with my personal growth and development.
  6. I am in love; my partner and I love mutually.
  7. I have many friends.
  8. I am a cheerful person.
  9. I am not thin-skinned nor sensitive to criticism.
  10. I have no major fears.