Like many career professionals, I have a bookshelf full of “how to be successful” books. The 12 Things on How to be a Successful So-and-So, Seven Blah-Blahs to be a Good Leader, and The One Thing You Should Never Do if you want to be Worth A %&$# are a few of the books that I have devoured from cover to cover in hopes of being more successful at fill in the blank. Don’t get me wrong, these books and the people who wrote them have offered some thoughtful insight and habits, some of which I have adopted into my own work life.
Many of these books, however, do not offer advice on the one thing we all do–fail. If failing were not an essential part of the human journey, why would we have adages like “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” or “If you fall off your horse, you have to get right back on?” Fortunately for me, I grew up in a household who knew how to take hard knocks and get right back up. And it probably helped that I grew up on a farm with horses.
It’s the space between “try” and “try again” that is the pivotal moment for achieving success. As a matter of fact, it’s the hurdle held by a comma that can create either a life full of regret or achievement.
At age 42 I decided that I was ready to fulfill an item on my bucket list–a triathlon. I wish I could change history and tell you that I struggled to make it, and in the end crossed the finish line. Nope. I failed. I not only failed, but had it not been for kind volunteers and a faithful friend I would still be lying in a field praying for God to relieve me of my misery. And who wants to go that way, with her age tattooed on her calf with a black permanent marker?
I took the failure hard. This event was an emotional one. It was meant to be a tribute to my mother who had suffered a fatal heart attack 3 years earlier. This was my horse.
After moping around for a few weeks, I began to reflect on why I had failed. Here are the lessons that I learned.
Lesson #1 – Don’t make a decision on emotion alone. This is counterintuitive to every damsel-in-distress, American-war-hero, underdog-wins-championship flick that you’ve ever seen. BUT…in the every day grind of the real world, emotion has to have practicality as a constant and equal companion. As an idealist who thinks the sky’s the limit, it is my practical friends and colleagues who help keep me grounded. It is when I can balance the two that I make solid decisions that set me up for success.
Lesson #2 – It really does take a village. I told very few people about my attempted triathlon, and even fewer about my failure. In my heart of hearts, I think I knew that it was going to be a long shot. Reading books on triathlons was not quite the same as doing the necessary hard work. I trained, but I didn’t have an experienced advisor to help me know the ends and outs of competing. More than that, I didn’t have someone(s) to push me beyond my limits and encourage me when I wanted to quit. It was only when a good friend, and experienced triathlete, offered to do the next one with me that I decided to try again.
Lesson #3 – Compare yourself to only yourself. During my first triathlon, I noticed women twice my age and twice my size (literary exageration) passing me. I have just enough competition in my DNA that it made my blood boil. At first this mental battle attacked my ego, then my self-esteem. Without my ego to say, “You’ve got this” and my self-esteem to say, “You’re good enough,” I was doomed. I spent way too much valuable energy trying to figure out how a woman 20 years older and 30 pounds heavier was swimming/biking/running circles around me. Instead, I should have focused my rapidly waning energy on how I was going to complete my own goal. It was this change in philsophy and focus that propelled me toward the finish line on my second attempt. It was all about me and not the 800 other athletes competing alongside me.
Lesson #4 – Reflection. This was my final and hardest lesson. I started out this section saying that it was after I reflected on my failure that I learned. I think this is a key, if not the key, component in our strive toward success. Any entrepreneur worth his salt (and hefty bank account) will tell you that thinking about how you failed, learning from it and trying again is what gets you over the hurdle from failure to success. Reflection, in some ways, is a necessary evil to an end. It not only takes physical hard work, as in training for a triathlon, but it takes the emotional heart work to admit mistakes, overcome them and put new philosophies and habits into action for another attempt toward your goal.
Success doesn’t come easy, and any professor, preacher, parent or partner that tells you so is shoveling a bunch of…uh…you know. The try, try again adage has inspired many inventors, politicians, students, athletes, etc. to get back on the horse. Failure is part of the process. Without it, we can’t learn, transform and leap over the comma to success.
By the way, since that first attempted triathlon, I have competed in and completed three—the sweet feeling of success!!!