Monday, September 13, 2010

Responding to Failure

In general, it seems that we people allow personal failures to dictate to us how they should be viewed, it's like failure takes on a life of its own and we cower away from it.

It would be impossible to accurately quantify, but I think it is likely that destructive responses to failure cost the global economy well over 100 Billion annually and produce a significant percentage of instances of poverty, depression, and domestic abuse.

The problem is our default response to failure. Instead of automatically being placed in a glass cage and observed from an objective perspective, failures are somehow automatically granted the freedom to run amok in the unchecked subjectivity of a person's worried thoughts.
Failure is a self-exciting problem as the emotions "fear" and "worry" (which go together, perhaps they don't need to be listed separately) tend to prevent us from seeing the situation objectively. Because we can't see the failure objectively, it's severity is magnified by our fear and worry which causes us to be more fearful and worry more. It's hard to take advice from people when the fear-and-worry magnified stakes seem very high and you feel sure of your own perception of the situation, thus help from outside objective sources may fail to find purchase in your thought process (and will cause your friends to... worry about you). I think the best internal solution to this dilemma is to zoom out to your entire life and ask yourself "what is the meaning of life?" If your failure has nothing to do with the answer to that question then your failure cannot be very important even though it may still feel important. Failures, once they have been recognized as weightless can then (maybe with some time) be viewed from an objective perspective and real lessons can be learned from them. Most failures are the result of us holding an incorrect view of some portion of reality, failure helps us match our perspective of reality, with true reality and so failures can be far more instructive than success if we deal with them correctly, as the famous British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy said: "I have learned more from my [failures*] than from my successes."

Personally I believe that the meaning of life is to glorify God by living as I was designed to, from that perspective only moral failures carry any weight. Therefore (only) moral failures have the objective right to hijack my emotions... which is a good thing, emotions were invented for a reason. Strong emotions are naturally associated with their causes by our brains and stick in our memories much better than individual events and facts do. The strong emotional reaction to such true failures should be the result of such failures; on top of being the right response it also equips us with a strong memory that provides future motivation not to fail again.
Even (maybe especially) true failures however can be taken out of perspective. If we allow such failures to dominate our thoughts for too long and never trace the failure back to it's cause and put some real thought into how to prevent such failure in the future, then we are failing to respond appropriately to the failure. If you are reading this and thinking about a failure, that failure needs to be viewed as what it really is. It is an event in the past (probably). The past is good for learning from, it is good for analyzing, but it is not good for living in. It is not good to allow natural emotions to overstay their welcome, at some point we must show them the door or they will prove destructive to our lives. There is a balance somewhere between too much emotion and too little emotion, I won't even begin to attempt articulating where that balance is but I think most people would agree it exists. This post addresses the problem of allowing emotions to have disproportionately great authority, they certainly deserve some authority but not at the complete expense of your left brain. Maybe later I'll share my thoughts on emotional deficiency... or maybe I'll get a friend with a higher emotional IQ to do it ;)


*Original word: "Mistakes"

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