An Open Letter to Those Who Think They’ve Failed.
So you’ve fallen short in your goals. In your mind, you’ve failed. You feel like the sacrifice and commitment and hard work has been a complete waste. You’re frustrated. You’re feeling like shit. You feel like a failure. You know you shouldn’t but that doesn’t change anything. It’s ok to feel low. It’s ok to feel these negative emotions. It’s human, and the thoughts are just the result of chemicals flooding your brain. You’re drunk on failure. But just remember, the chemicals and thoughts in your head when you’re at your lowest are clouding your judgement and your opinions. You can’t trust that your ‘failure drunk’ mind is going to do you any favours any more than you can trust the judgement of a brain drunk on alcohol. Don’t believe these thoughts. They’re your reaction to a situation, but they’re not going to help you. Instead, we need to explore the mind’s reactions to failure, and see what lessons we can learn from this exploration.
It’s time to sober up.
Did you do everything you could to achieve your goal? EVERYTHING? If your answer is ‘no’, then you’ve got some planning to do. You’ll never know what you could have achieved because you left stones unturned. The path forward is to make sure you put steps in place to address these unturned stones. If your answer is ‘yes’, if you did everything you could, then we can draw an obvious conclusion. You simply aren’t good enough. You aren’t good enough… yet. And the path forward here is simple to. Get better.
If you have a growth mindset, you’ll realise that you are in COMPLETE CONTROL of your abilities. In complete control of your ability to get better. And this is a powerful tool. However, if you have a fixed mindset, you believe that your ability to achieve your goals is outside your control. And this is dangerous. It leads down a slippery slope to ‘learned helplessness’, a state where (after repeated failures in attempts to control your environment) you believe you can no longer control outcomes. Never underestimate your power to control your environment and the outcomes of your efforts.
Failure to achieve your goals can become a damaging thing if your actions are too strongly entwined in your identity. If you cannot differentiate between WHAT YOU DO and WHO YOU ARE, then your sense of self worth become inextricably linked to your successes and failure. This is dangerous. It implies that by falling short on your goals you’re less of a person, that you bring less value to the world. This is simply not the case. You are not your goals, achieved or failed. WHO YOU ARE is a reflection of your attitudes and values, your personality and your mind. How you treat people. Who you are is not what you do. Your failures do not diminish your character – they act only as a catalyst to make it stronger. Failure has no bearing on your self worth.
You’re not alone in working hard. You’re not a unique snowflake. You’re one of hundreds and thousands of people who fell short in their goals. But there’s one thing you CAN do better than these other people. You can fail better. The failure you’re experiencing now is shared by others. Many of these others will let this failure define the end of their journey. Will you?
Failure tells us you’re operating at the margins of your ability. The absence of failure simply tells us you’re nestled within your comfort zone. And while it may be comfortable, it’s sure as hell not useful if you want to become exceptional. In “Screw One Percenters, Try the FOUR Percent Rule.”, we discuss how far outside of your comfort zone you need to be operating to maximise future performance.
If you’re REALLY driven and goal orientated (and your goal has THUS FAR evaded you), your ability to achieve the goal IN THE FUTURE is directly dependant on how you well you respond to your perceived current failure. Failure and success cycles through waves of toughs and peaks. An inability to deal with failure means you’re unable to leave your current trough and reach the ensuing peak. Accepting and responding well to failure normalises an experience that is just that – normal.
This ability to deal with failure has a name. Resilience. Or grit. It’s dependant on your ability to learn from your failures. Even if you turned over every stone at your disposal in the pursuit of your goals, there are still lessons. The lessons are about the stones that WEREN’T at your disposal – those you didn’t know to seek. The stones you have to seek as you reload for another charge towards your dreams. It’s important to never let a good failure go to waste. Failure isn’t an obstacle to your goals, it’s a tool to be used in achieving them. The better you get at failing, the better you get at learning and the sharper that tool gets. It’s virtually impossible to succeed without first failing. You’re just one failure closer to success.
By examining your failures, they’ll provide you with a roadmap to avoid falling short in the future. The location of your failures is the exact location you should be devoting your attention to maximise future goal achievement. Of course, it’s important that you Respond, Dont React, to Competition Failure. Sure, you should address your failures and newly exposed weaknesses, but don’t use this small sample size of testing to change direction completely. Any single competition is a tiny microcosm of your entire ability. A complete refocus of your training because of one event disrespects everything else that still warrants your attention. Take a macro view. Sure, there will be peaks and troughs, but Is Your Training Trending Upward?
And to get better at failure, just like getting better at anything else, requires practice. You’ll get better at failing by failure. This doesn’t mean you should go out seeking failure – it will find you! Think of resilience as a muscle, just like willpower. It’s strengthened by failure. Not just failure, but your ability to BOUNCE BACK from this failure. And to bounce back positively, we have to control our response to failure. Not achieving a goal isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing only when we LABEL it as a bad thing. If we CHOOSE to label it as a positive, as an opportunity to learn and grow, failure becomes a positive. The moment between stimulus and response is where we get to define our future successes. Your state of mind should not be governed by your experience, but rather, your experience should be governed by your state of mind. We talk about how this also relates to injury in “A Stoic Approach to Injury in Sport, Exercise and CrossFit.”.
This moment between stimulus and response is driven by our Positive Self Talk. If our self talk is positive, it has been shown to enhance self esteem, motivation, attentional focus and performance. It creates positive emotions. Negative self-talk on the other hand is critical and demeaning. It creates negative emotions which are damaging to self esteem, motivation, focus and performance. By using your self talk to frame failure as a positive, it BECOMES a positive.
So it’s time for you to get back up. It’s time to learn the lessons of your failure. It’s time to get back to the drawing board. Not everyone will, and the true champions aren’t the best athletes. They’re not the strongest or the fittest. They’re the most resilient. The ones with the most grit. They’re the ones who accept their shortcomings, both physical and mental and address them. You’ve got a choice. Will you get back up or is this the end of the road? Your call.
Plan. Reload. Go again.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.