The pursuit of every goal starts out with the feeling of setting off to save the world. Everyone you meet hears about it. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and now it’s happening.” Even though the future is scary and uncertain, the knowledge that you’ve overcome resistance and begun to work towards your goal makes you feel like a superhero.
You start to see some results. It’s a rush. The success-to-be feels more real, more attainable. You begin to imagine yourself as a person who’s already accomplished this goal. That goal slowly morphs into an essential part of your identity, even though it hasn’t even come true.
And then your fantasy smacks into an uncooperative reality. Failure. After months of work. After years. After a whole life (it seems). It’s like losing a part of yourself.
We’ve all been there a bunch of times. Careers, personal projects, relationships, friendships, new hobbies. They inflate like balloons in your mind and burst when they hit capacity. They fly out of your hands. They get ugly stretch marks and you “accidentally” let go, only to regret it later.
So you messed up. Big deal. Literally every person who’s ever done anything has failed in huge ways. Shame is useless. The question is, how do you go forward from here in a way that’s meaningful and productive? Here are a few pointers:
1) Stop thinking in terms of “failures.” Call them “mistakes” instead.
“Failure” is a loaded word. It describes this kind of fatal blow to your identity we were talking about earlier. Feelings of failure do not come from having a healthy mindset when it comes to goals. They come from having unhealthy, needy, co-dependent relationships with your goals.
Goals shouldn’t be like crazy girlfriends who call you sobbing at midnight because they need attention. Goals should not become wrapped up in every part of your identity. You should never love a goal so much that you can’t imagine life without it.
Stop framing goals in melodrama and see things for what they are. Goals are not your purpose in life. Errors are not violations of your purpose, because life doesn’t have a purpose. Goals are nothing more than fun adventures that give us meaning. Things that go wrong along the way are just “mistakes.”
“Failure” is too much. It’s too dramatic. It’s not actionable. Save “failure” for special occasions, where a huge and essential system is truly, hopelessly, catastrophically fucked. Nuclear reactors fail. America’s public education system fails.
But not us. We make mistakes. And like Charles Munger said, “There’s no way that you can live an adequate life without making many mistakes.”
2) Rationally evaluate your mistakes
Calmly figure out what role you played in the creation of this undesirable outcome. Don’t do that next time. This is an essential step, which most people don’t take because they expect themselves to be perfect.
Peter Bevelin gives a great checklist for analyzing mistakes in Seeking Wisdom. So great I decided to include it, despite his use of a dirty word.
What was my original reason for doing something? What did I know and what were my assumptions? What were my alternatives at the time?
How did reality work out relative to my original guess? What worked and what didn’t?
Given the information that was available, should I have been able to predict what was going to happen?
What worked well? What should I do differently? What did I fail to do? What did I miss? What must I learn? What must I stop doing?
Once you’ve gone through this checklist and learned all you can, it’s time to…
3) Let it go already!
Be forgiving. You’re not alone in having fucked up. It happens to everyone, all the time.
But what about the people I hurt? The damage is done, and feeling bad won’t change that. Even more, the people who were affected by your mistakes are well on the way to forgetting about it. They have their own lives and mistakes to attend to.
One more thing. Don’t think about the mistake in terms of your whole life. It’s an isolated event, not a chapter in a lifelong battle against your own personality flaws. If you find yourself dwelling on your whole back-catalogue of missteps, stop. Your life is not a novel. You are not some unchanging character in a Greek tragedy with a character flaw that ultimately leads to your demise. This is just one honest mistake. You subconsciously weighed the emotional and logical pros and cons and made the decision that seemed best. The universe is infinitely complicated and you are only able to model it with seven thoughts at a time, so you made a little error in your judgment. Now you have a valuable experience that you can use to make more informed decisions in the future. That’s all there is to it.
Avoid brooding. You’re in an amazing place. You’re a bouncer who gets to stand between the past and the future and decide what gets through. You’re still in control.