When Einstein wrote “failure is success in progress”, he was (probably) hoping to diminish the stigma around failing and emphasising that failure is inevitable and should be accepted. Today, failures are indeed accepted. We fail, embellish them with a positive spin and move on to try again: ‘Don’t dwell on and regret your failures in the past, look forward’. My blog posts have echoed this by complementing a brief recognition of my failures at self-discipline with a redeeming justification that, hey, at least I tried!
I now regret this. One’s own failures should be exposed, dwelled upon and be painful. For without the pain, we will not regret and without the regret, we will not change from the mindset that led us to fail in the first place.
Failure comes from not matching the expectations of yourself or others, arising from these two inherent sources of uncertainty:
- Externally-driven failure or success, i.e. losing a match thanks to a great performance of your opponent in a sports match
- Internally-driven failure or success, i.e. losing a match thanks to your performance in a sports match (on match day, your performance may be inevitable but as the inevitable result of your training and effort beforehand)
Failures are always a combination of these external and internal factors and are therefore often treated all alike. We therefore applaud ourselves for trying, and accept failure as the inevitable result of this.
“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”- Theodore Roosevelt
But we need to distinguish between these failures. Those driven by external factors should be recognised as out of one’s control and therefore quickly passed on. By contrast, those driven by internal factors are worth regretting.
Why beat yourself up over the past?
When we consider a failure, I think we consider it as an aberration. A one-off, fleeting moment of weakness that led to us capitulating to the TV-remote or a bag of crisps. Failure is considered an ephemeral state, an uncharacteristic deviation, from our current mentality or approach. We find the positives and quickly moving on. The prevailing attitude seems to say, “don’t get stuck in the past, regret is pointless”. But is it really in the past?
I think such aberrations are actually the most revealing of our mindset. If ‘you know’ you would never do that, then clearly the past was a different ‘you’ but it was not a ghost, it was you!
Psychologist Carol Dweck developed the idea of a “fixed vs growth mindset”. The former views abilities as static, unchangeable and hard-wired. The latter views them as mutable characteristics, things which can be improved upon through hard-work and effort. Those who succeed, the CEOs, the athletes, the stars, have a growth mindset. In this context, we need to view ourselves as less static and more dynamic. You are connected to your past-self, especially the not-so distant past-self and quickly finding the silver-linings to move forward with will not change this person.
As Will & Ariel Durant wrote “the past is the present unrolled for understanding and the present is the past unrolled for action”.
We must therefore distinguish between internal and external factors in our failure and to do so, we must dwell on it first. From this reflection and inquiry, we can identify the parts of our mindset that led to the failure and begin the work of changing them.
But Why Regret?
The regret I speak of is the internal disappointment about something for which you had personal control over. An emotion that is harsher than disappointment but softer than guilt or remorse. Regret is a powerful but painful emotion and unsurprisingly, people resist it.
Drew Barrymore captured this in her quote, “I never regret anything. Because every little detail of your life is what made you into who you are in the end.” I used to subscribe to this for two reasons. Firstly, from every failure, I learnt something and had I not failed, I never would have learned that valuable lesson. Secondly, it was all in the past and seemed futile to lament that which cannot be changed.
This was until my father gifted me the book, “You’re not that Great” by Elan Gale. What Gale emphasised was that regret was an important form of self-introspection. How unimaginative are you that you cannot envisage a world in which you and the events of your life are slightly better? How perfect do you think you are that you would not change anything that ‘made you into who you are in the end’?
A bad decision may have had some positives in retrospect but perhaps the better decision would have had more! The search for silver-linings is good when the failure is inevitable, but it prevents the much-needed reflection when the failure is within our control. Such a time is for self-assessment and introspection in turn, analysing one’s shortcomings to make better choices in the future but also, as regret is painful, as a deterrent from failing again.
When one looks at Instagram, you cannot help but wonder, where are all the unhappy people? In the virtual life we live on social media, failures are ignored or at best fleeting. They are deemed unimportant or a private affair. My blog has been the similar. It has become the preserve for my thoughts and opinions on what I, or others, get wrong and how I now try and correct for it. My posts mention failure as fleeting and ephemeral, a thing of the past, and redeemed by my attempts to change.
I have been wrong. Understanding failure requires more than acknowledging its presence. Failures need to be exposed and dwelled upon to be understood. Furthermore, they continue. Over the past few weeks, I have been stuck in a slump. Excuses aside, I have not taken control of my life and dwindled time away refreshing news and cycling sites. I became lazy and passive with life. I started multiple blog posts but my focus would wander and leave them unfinished. I avoided thinking or recognising this slump, hoping it would just disappear. Maybe it was just a one-off and time would sort it out.
It didn’t. Finally, this past week, I decided to dwell on it and admit that maybe, just maybe, I was part of the problem! I had wasted the time and opportunities; such precious moments were now lost, and I regretted it and I still regret it, fortunately memories are short. There are no redeeming factors or silver-linings, just regret. And with this regret, I took a step back to try and identify why I had lost focus – it was a loss of autonomy. My work permit to Kenya had been due to take 3-4 months and it had been 7 months in a holding pattern with no permit in sight. For the first 5 months, I was very glad to have the privilege of living in Amsterdam but as it prolonged, angst was building. I felt distracted and in this frustration, my meditation practice fell away and the blogs were left unfinished. With this understanding, I better accepted that my future was a bit unclear but I could determine how in ‘control’ I felt. I have reinstated my (intermittent) meditation practice and now finished this blog, I have begun the work of changing my mentality.
A Tentative Conclusion
We are all terrified of failing. In response, society has adopted an overtly positive message around failure. Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins write that “I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustrations were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.”
Whilst this may be true, and we should not be ashamed of our failures, it also absolves us the self-introspection and regret. Some failures are inevitable and out of your control but most are not (entirely). Failures are a reminder that we can improve and in order to do so, we need to dwell upon why the ‘yesterday-you’ did something your ‘today-you’ would prefer not to. Rather than embellish our failures, if we regret them, we might have fewer.