Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.Seneca
When discussing failure, I often worry that whatever is said will come across as tired, well worn aphorisms. In fact, I imagine you would be hard pushed to find a single individual that doesn’t already agree with the following:
That our mistakes are something to learn from. That each new failure, is a seed from which we can grow.
It is a truth peddled not only by every living self-help guru, but thousands of shitty gifs and instagram posts the world over. It is an idea that has been preached for thousands of years: from the stoic Seneca, to Samuel Beckett and beyond, it continues to be shared to this very day. In fact, Rou Reynolds of the British band Enter Shikari recently echoed Beckett himself in their latest album:
I think Beckett said it best
Try again, fail again, fail better.Enter Shikari, Crossing the Rubicon
So, with the popularity of this topic, you may be wondering why I would even bother writing about it. Well you see, whilst it is something everybody knows and most likely accepts, I honestly believe the process of learning from our mistakes is easier said than done.
Whilst the idea of what has been dubbed a, “growth mindset” seems simple, this is to ignore one very simple truth about human beings. This truth being, our feeling mind often holds sway over our logical mind, and beyond this, it is far harder to change. So yes, whilst it is easy for us to comprehend that our failure is something we can easily learn from, it will be far harder to change our negative feelings about it.
You may know on the surface what has to be done, but deep down you can still be hurting, struggling with feelings of guilt or regret over what has taken place. Unfortunately, piffy slogans will do little to challenge these feelings. No. Negative emotions cannot be tackled without a certain degree of painful introspection.
For example, say you have failed an important exam. Cliched I know, but it is an easy example. Logically, it is easy for you ascertain what needs to be done. Look at how you prepared, decide what changes need to be made, and make these in order to perform better during future attempts.
It is far more difficult however, to manage the emotional fallout. You may have persistent feelings of guilt, perhaps believing you have failed your teachers or those that have helped you to prepare. Perhaps your future plans were contingent on passing this test, and having now failed, you are having to reconsider the identity you had envisioned for yourself moving forwards. These shifts in mindset are not easy, and can’t take place without enduring certain levels of emotional pain.
Whilst what Seneca said is indeed true, that our difficulties do in fact strengthen our mind, he does leave out one important detail. The fact that difficulties often hurt. They fucking hurt. And unless we are prepared to face this pain, learning from them is almost impossible.
This is my issue with the commonly accepted beliefs on failure. They are simply too optimistic. Too misleading in what they preach. Yes, what doesn’t kill you may possibly make you stronger. But this doesn’t change the fact that a shovel to the face is going to really fucking sting…
When we talk about making mistakes, we try to shift our focus ahead. It is all about how much better we will be in the future, rather than the pain we are feeling at the time.
The thing is though, by rushing ahead you may miss the point. It is important to take the time to feel that pain. To take those feelings on board. This is where the most significant lessons can be learnt. You are not wrong to feel bad about your mistakes. You don’t have to rush ahead. You must feel free to feel however you need to at the time.
This is one of my – many – issues with mindfulness. Well, not mindfulness in its entirety, but how it is all too often practised. My issue is highlighted in the following quote:
When we notice judgements arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
I am not convinced about mindfulness focus on letting judgements pass. It implies a certain degree of disengagement. Of course, I don’t believe this was the original intent, but I believe it is too often seen this way. It is used as a brief respite, rather than a tool for productive engagement.
When the mindfulness is all said and done, any issues you had will still remain. Instead, when these judgements arise, we need to tackle them head on. Probe deeper. The more uncomfortable it makes you feel the better. After all, you’re not going to be able to climb out from any pile of shit without first digging your hands right in. Once things get all covered in shit, there ain’t no use trying to stay clean. It is a little too late for that.
Beyond this, the idea that all mistakes can be learned from implies we have ultimate control over our lives. We are left believing that if we fail enough, we will eventually succeed. Yes, this might be true in some cases, but not always. The world is not ours to control. Sometimes a mistake can have far reaching consequences. Sometimes there are no second chances.
Yes we can learn from it. But not necessarily in the way you would expect. The lesson may end up being that success is not what you originally imagined it to be. You may make mistakes within your relationship. The lesson may leave you stronger as a couple. Equally however, the lesson could be that, after dealing with some painful truths you have been fighting for a relationship that will never work. It is just not meant to be.
Yes. You have learnt from your mistake. But not in the way you had hoped.
We can’t afford to be rigid in our expectations. Only in fluidity can we hope to accept reality for what it is.
So in conclusion…
I know this may come across as overly pessimistic, but I don’t mean for it to. In fact, I agree that our mistakes are incredible learning tools. I just feel the social media slogans don’t paint the process in a realistic light. They can build up the false expectation that failing is easy. But no…
This should never be the case.
In overcoming failures we must surmount some degree of emotional trauma. It is supposed to be hard.
Hard lessons: these are how we make the most of our mistakes.
All the best,