Seven ways to make failure impossible

We live by goals, targets, determination. But the trouble is, you either meet goals (success) or not (fail). And since failure is hefty, and willpower a limited resource, here’s another way to do life

Low hurdle web

Set yourself a lower hurdle, and stop tripping. Laura Lloyd 2015

I’ve loved goals (I WILL draft a novel in 31 days, dammit!). Lived by deadlines (Theatre booked, must make show!). Let ambition take the lead (I will go to a specialist theatre school in Paris, survive imperious teaching practices, train my body to do physical theatre, and then start my own company). Sometimes, an all-out, single-minded, strict approach can yield results (especially if you keep your inner sergeant major in check by introducing a huge dose of humour) – check out my Commit series on Illustrated Guide to Life to make things happen that way.

I believe this is especially powerful for short-term blasts on things – but watch out! It can lead to burnout.

One size does not fit all

But what works for having a spurt on a novel, or swotting up for an exam when you were sixteen, say, might not apply to all other areas of life. You might have learnt a musical instrument by sheer devotion, trained for an athletic event by making daily training a religion, or memorized poems for a competition.

You’re clever. You’re talented. You pass exams. You know how to work hard.

I’m great at self-discipline! Except for my vices…

But that kind of strictness might not be working for your attempts to diet, say, and you give yourself a hard time because you wonder why you’re a willpower weakling in one area when you can be a powerhouse in another.

Or it may not apply to other areas of self-development that we’ve set ourselves: to stop being defensive and connect with people more. To stop procrastinating and be creative. Whatever.

Making and breaking

The difference of course, is that dieting is partly trying to break a habit (it so often involves being strict with yourself about what you should not eat), whereas learning a language is acquiring a habit. Breaking habits is tricky, acquiring them disturbingly easy.

And you’re no willpower weakling anyway: as Jeremy Dean points out in Making Habits, Breaking Habits, “Everyone’s self-control is a limited resource. It’s like muscle strength: the more we use it, the less remains in the tank, until we replenish it with rest”.

When we fight and bully ourselves, our mind fights back

Dean cites Daniel Wegner’s ‘white bear’ study (Participants were asked to avoid thinking about an imaginary white bear. Those who’d been asked to deliberately not think about a white bear for five minutes first, had the recurring thought much more often than the control group who’d been given permission to think about it. ie, the more we fight a thought, the more it fights back).

The mounting cost of failure

Our culture really likes this strong, masculine, willpower, strict, goal-driven way of working. So when we fail – binge eating is an example that comes to mind – we so often think self-punishment will teach us the lesson we need. We think, “Next time, I just need to be even stricter, and then I won’t slip up”.

And then we embark on another restrictive diet, and hate ourselves even more when we get derailed. The result is our self-hate grows in an ever-tightening spiral. Bad news for the soul.

So what could we do to make failure impossible?

  1. Change the goals. Make them bigger, more philosophical, more subjective, with scope for adjustment in the immediate future. Am I happy with the way in which I’ve eaten this week? Am I happy with how much I’ve moved my body? Do I have a life purpose above and beyond losing my muffin-top that I can gun for – one anchored in what truly brings me happiness? Did I enjoy my exercise time this week?
  2. Tell yourself it’s already happening.  Don’t defer buying new clothes until you’ve lost weight – be attractive now. Have pleasure now. Lighten up now. Inhabit your sexuality now. And realise that even internal ‘work’ is change happening – so you’re creating consciousness around the personal development you want to make, and that’s already a shift. Change has already begun, and not all change is measurable.
  3. Focus on your progress. Anchor yourself in your efforts. Pushing is not the only effort. Relaxation is a good effort. Letting go is a good effort. Letting emotion rise up is a good effort. Forgiveness is a good effort. Opening to intuition is a good effort. Softening and noticing when you’re forcing yourself is a good effort.
  4. Remove deadlines. Drop into timelessness. Tell ourselves that our evolution takes as long as it takes. Remind ourselves that we are learning.
  5. Remove rules. Instead, adopt positive habits – and accept that they veer off course from time to time.
  6. Renounce perfectionism. Just stop it! It’s such horse dung and it stops you being lovable anyway – you can’t share your vulnerability with people if you’re too busy defending your perfect persona. Perfectionism is just self-abuse, don’t pretend it’s a virtue.
  7. Deal with others’ expectations. Some people love to measure success. They love to compare. We can’t improve ourselves from a place of self-love if we’re in fear of others’ judgment. They might not be enlightened enough to understand your different approach, so it’s in your own interest to let go of your own anger and blame of them by understanding that they aren’t ready and moving towards people who are more helpful. Other people might be in a rush for you. Your self-compassionate stance might unsettle or threaten them.

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How do you do your life? Comments welcome in the comment thread below.