The Anatomy of Failure

By Aaron Morton

Picture of road signs pointing in opposite directions one saying Success and the other saying Failure

Hows this for a story on Failure:

Daryl Watson was a playwright, working in New York. In 2007 he started to become disillusioned with his life and sought to find the answer to his purpose in life by going on various pilgrimages around the world.

Eventually he came across a story of a woman called Mildred Norman and the Peace Pilgrim. For 28 years Mildred walked across America spreading the message of peace with no possessions. As she explained she “walked until I got shelter and fasted until I was fed”.

Inspired by her mission Daryl sort to do the same. He sold his possessions and sent a mass email to his friends saying he would now answer to the name of ‘peace pilgrim’. His mission was to walk from Deleware to San Francisco with no possessions or money.

Filled with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose he set off on his journey that would take him 6 months, intent on spreading the word of peace.

3 days later, Daryl found himself in a motel phoning his Mum to come and pick him up. The bitter cold nights and lack of enthusiasm from others for his cause was Daryl’s downfall.

Who Likes Failure?

Failure is a hard pill to swallow. The evidence is etched across the face of any sports star who has narrowly missed the coveted prize. It is not surprising that research has shown that second place athletes are significantly less happy than those in third place.

Failure is a fundamental part of life. It stems throughout all of human history, so you’d think we would be used to it by now. Yet we will continue to put more effort into avoiding failure than we do to gaining success.

No More Boom & Bust

“No more boom & bust” was voiced by Gordon Brown and Alan Greenspan as they sought to create a continuous platform of stability in the financial system by ploughing in cheap money. However, as Nassim Taleb points out, if you take out risk, you also take out the ability to handle risk when those inevitable ‘black swan’ moments occur.

On a simple level, for failure to occur there has to be 2 elements involved:

Expectation

Action

As an example, take the exercise of a bicep curl. You hold a dumbbell in your hand with your arm extended by your side. As you begin the action of contracting your bicep you have an expectation your arm is going to be able to perform this movement. Failure occurs when the muscles can no longer meet expectation and cease to perform the action.

With failure all around why are some more significant than others. We tend to forget getting up at 7.30 instead of 7 and failing to win the lottery each week, but weight loss failures and unrequited loves are stamped in our memory for years.

The ‘why’ comes down to 2 factors:

The emotional attachment to the context.

The story we tell ourselves after the event.

Are Business owners asking for it?

No business owner starts up with the expectation of failing. The majority of times they go into business to make something of themselves, to get freedom, to earn wealth or to avoid poverty. Either way there is an emotional connotation to the act of starting and being in business. Despite statistics showing the chances of business success is low, their expectation is to be successful.

As a result there is an emotional attachment to the outcome. Business owners don’t work all hours, with little or no holiday, sacrificing family time if the expectation was that they will fail.

If failure occurs, the true emotional significance is in relation to the difference between the expectation of what you thought would happen and what you are currently experiencing in the cold light of day. The Amygdala in your brain has issued the ‘Yep, this is pretty Fu*king significant’ warning, your body is releasing cortisol and adrenalin is pumping out in anticipation for bad times.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Like most situations in life, the brain loves to put a narrative on a context and instances of failure are no different. Depending on your level of self-esteem or the personal consequences the failure will have upon you, the narrative tends to fall into one of 2 story structures:

If you already have a low level of self-esteem, the narrative will be validation of what you already suspected; that you are in fact a loser and you were an idiot to think this situation was going to prove anything other than you will always be a loser.

If self-esteem is not a factor or the consequences of the failure will result in you looking bad or getting fired, your narrative will focus on blaming external variables and unforeseen circumstances you could never have predicted (otherwise known as self-serving bias).

Ultimately Failure doesn’t have to mean the end. Athletes can come back next year, people can start another business and guys can hit on another female. What is important, after the emotional drama of realising your expectations have not been met, is the learning to take away from the experience that can influence success in the future.

What about you? How do you deal with failure?

About the Author

Aaron Morton is about human performance. As a coach and personal trainer, Aaron works with entrepreneurs to create the environment, mentally, physically & strategically, where they can perform at their best.

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