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Stop Setting Yourself up to Fail

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

‘How long is this going to take?!’ I could hear exasperation and frustration in my dear friend's voice as soon as I picked up the call.

I knew what she was referring to from previous conversations. She wasn’t satisfied with where she was in life. She wanted to be further in her career, have more financial freedom, and to be sharing her life with a romantic partner that was an excellent fit for her.

We have all asked ourselves that very question and in that same tone many times over our life, haven’t we?

What is heartbreaking about my dear friend’s situation is that, despite the challenging times of the pandemic, she has made more progress toward her goals than most people I have ever known.

Achieving meaningful success requires us to strive for our potential. It drives us to contribute our gifts to the world and makes life worth living. It necessitates continually expanding out from what is familiar and our current understanding of the world and ourselves. In our efforts, we develop our mindset, skillset, and relationships. We achieve growth by learning from our experiences and failures.

In embracing this understanding of success, let us also be brave and acknowledge that our feelings of failure, or even anticipating that we will fail, can derail us from moving productively forward for hours, days, years, and sometimes even a lifetime. I know this to be true for myself and everyone I have ever met.

But who judges whether we succeed or fail?

Most often, we do.

Sometimes we get feedback from the outside world, from bosses or co-workers, romantic partners or kids, or friends or family, but that feedback is often quite rare in comparison.

We are the ones that are constantly monitoring and evaluating ourselves. We judge in our own mind, based on the criteria we alone set for ourselves. We feel shame and unworthy when we feel we have failed and try to keep our perceived failures hidden from the world. If we anticipate we will fail, we will often dodge and deny what is possible, cutting off possibilities and limiting our potential.

But shouldn’t we be at least a little biased in our evaluation of ourselves?

Or grade on a curve?

Or, at the very least, give ourselves extra credit for all the hard work we put in and obstacles we have overcome?

What is it that makes my dear friend and the rest of us feel like failures, even when we might be making remarkable progress toward our goals?

What makes us sink to the depths of failure despair most often across the myriad of experiences and engagements we have in life is when we judge ourselves against goals and metrics that are not based in fact or reality. Metrics and goals are fantastic motivators and give us something to strive, stretch, and fight to achieve. But when they are not consistent with facts or reality, we adopt a false concept of what is possible and required to succeed. We, therefore, adopt a plan that is unrealistic and a mindset that is unprepared for reaching the goal ahead. The wide discrepancy between our aspirations and reality causes us to experience significant despair. In failure's aftermath, we may feel like our goals are unachievable. We may lack confidence in our abilities. We may also feel so disconnected from understanding how to achieve our goals that we don’t attempt to reapproach them.

Often we choose our goals and the metrics by which we judge ourselves by what we think would create an ideal future. Who hasn’t said they want to achieve [insert goal here] by [insert date here] without researching what can be learned from existing research or recommended by experts? Often, we do not have clarity on what is required, the process, the typical timeline, or the likelihood of success.

Whether we want a new job, lose x pounds, find an ideal mate, start a family, move to a new city, or another goal, sometimes it is possible to research or develop partnerships to gain helpful clarity and support for moving forward. However, even if we do find insight and support, the path to reaching our biggest goals is often rather difficult to identify.

While not judging ourselves against unrealistic metrics will help us avoid artificial failure, it will not set us up for success. Achieving success requires more.

There are two primary contributors to our success, ourselves and the world around us. Since we can only control our own experience, let’s explore how we can best move forward.

Setting ourselves up for success distills down to committing to three practices. In understanding the need for these practices, we also find the answer to the question my dear friend and the rest of us have often asked. They are:

  1. Cutting off the judgment

  2. Learning what we need to learn

  3. Committing to an ‘it takes what it takes’ mindset

Cutting off judgment: The first hurdle is cutting off the judgment in our head and shifting our focus to the task at hand. If we insist on knowing how to be successful before we start, if we insist on perfection in our attempts, if we insist on being comfortable, we will not brave the steps we need to take. Our ability to make peace with the unknown, reckon with humility, and sit in discomfort are core to the bravery required to move boldly forward.

Learning what we need to learn: Learning enables us to complete each step. If we do not tap into our courage to forgive ourselves and others for our/their failings, embrace our current reality, and learn what is necessary for us to learn, we will remain stuck. Our ability to let go of false comforts, accept difficult truths, and build our knowledge, mindset, capabilities, and relationships enable us to complete the necessary steps on our journey.

Committing to an ‘it takes what it takes’ mindset: Whether you are able to base your expectation and goals around concrete facts and solid metrics or not, each situation is different. Our journeys are as unique as we are, and life is always presenting new and unanticipated challenges. For this reason, adopting an ‘it takes what it takes’ mindset is essential to reaching both our concrete and less definable goals. Noticing our learnings and step-by-step progress gives us the courage, confidence, and motivation to take on more. The process unfolds as we move forward; there are steps and roadblocks we cannot know. An 'it takes what it takes' mindset keeps us passionate and persistent in our efforts when we encounter failures, setbacks, and additional challenges arise. We reach our goals when we are satisfied, and we alone determine this along our way.

While these three practices are presented in a stepwise manner, one can see that all of these practices must be ongoing and concurrent for us to reach our goals.

My hope is that these practices of cutting off judgment, learning what we need to learn, and committing to an ‘it takes what it takes’ mindset enables you to better understand how to be successful, develop resilience and capability, rise toward your potential, and find authentic, fulfilling, and meaningful success.

All the best, and be well!

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