What do you think a person can do when they used to be fearless, defied the odds and all the naysayers, risked everything, faced their fears and threw everything into going after their lifelong dream/purpose/creative talent, only to fall flat on their face and completely fail. Plain and simple fail! To say that this person is now having a hard time picking themselves up, dusting off and moving on would be the understatement of the year. (We all know what that means, of course. Emotional unintelligence, lack of character strength, how losers handle shit—and yet, here it is—it’s what this person is dealing with, regardless of the fact that they never could have imagined themselves like this, nor did anyone else really). How can they find a way out of the fog of guilt and shame when it’s heavier than they are capable of lifting? How do you move on when all sense of self and your very identity as a human being is just gone? What does a person do when they are no-one from nowhere, have nobody and nothing, not even a name or a dream to hold onto?
Can you give me some advice? I would love to know how you cultivated fearlessness, defied the odds and naysayers, risked everything, faced your fears and threw everything into your purpose. If I could do just three of those things in my lifetime, I would be pleased. To me, and I’m sure to everyone reading, you sound admirable—but it’s clear you don’t feel that way right now. It looks like there are two things causing you grief, one; the so-called failure, and two; how you’re reacting to so-called failure. Let’s start with the former, because that’s what got you into this mess in the first place.
I hate the expression commonly touted in entrepreneurial rhetoric to ‘fail more’ and ‘fail better.’ Ridiculous.‘Failure’ in some shape or form is inevitable, but I don’t think anyone should aspire to it. I far prefer the idea that ‘Failure is in the eye of the beholder.’ By which I mean, you get to decide what is a failure, and what is simply a bump in the road—even if it feels like a car crash. Another saying I believe in: ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings.’ We are all our own fat ladies, with the glorious, sole power to conclude our own show if we wish—or to stay in the wings a little longer, waiting to see what might happen next. Have you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic? In it, she says: “Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting. Interesting outcomes, after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.” For the purpose of this response, I’m going to call your failure the interesting incident. Because failure is very heavy and final sounding, much like a fat lady singing—and it would be a shame to end the show early.
It sounds like you are someone with high expectations, for both your ambition and the way you conduct yourself. And so you should be. But high expectations must be balanced with the reality that things don’t always work out the way we want them to, no matter how fearless and gutsy we are. I don’t want to be another person telling you that failure is part of the process, because rationally, I think you know this. As long as we’re clear on the fact that this is very normal, yeah? Screwing up, being humiliated and things going completely opposite to plan happen to every single person who has been brave enough to do something with their lives—we’re good on this, right? Just wanted to make sure. Because sometimes, even when we think we understand things (of course I know that! etc etc), there is a very small sliver of us that believes we are exempt. That we have put so much effort and sacrifice into something, there is no way we could possibly fall down. What I do know is that every successful person has an impressive collection of interesting incidents, just like you.
It also sounds like you have a pretty clear idea as to how the non-losers of the world react to failure: they are people of character, who know how to handle their shit, and have high emotional intelligence. Some people are better at carrying this off than others, from the outside anyway. But for the most part, I think it’s rare for people to rise from failure with grace, heads high and halos shining as they nobly march through the rubble. That when shit happens to people, they pick themselves up in a very sloppy, kind of embarrassing way. That most of us go through a process of feeling broken and not knowing what to do, then figure out how to move forward in small, scrappy ways, then fall back down and kind of repeat it over and over again until one day, we are a bit less broken than before. Much like success is uber-glamorized, I think survival is too. The result might look impressive, but the process is takes to get there is almost always tedious, painful, messy and human.
I don’t think it’s your fault that you expected to bounce back from your interesting incident like a pro. We live in an era where the boring, non-glossy reality of humanity is rarely given air time. Information and imagery are in high competition, trickling through algorithms that spit out the stuff that will grab our attention, clicks, hopes. Nobody wants to read about how the guy in the rags to riches story spent months on his couch drinking excessively, scrolling through Facebook, picking his nose and putting on weight. It’s far more exciting to skip to the part where he cured his alcoholism with meditation and started a new VC firm that funds businesses which cure addiction. While this environment confuses our expectation for how life works, and generally chips away at our self-esteem, it’s also not an excuse. The inescapable, terrifying and liberating fact is that we are all responsible for our choices, which includes the choice to move on when things don’t work out the way we want them to. Again, it sounds like you know this too, which is why you feel like you’re failing yourself on top of the interesting incident. So let’s try and figure out how to make this choice a possibility.
You may feel like your identity has crashed and burned with your failure, but that is not true. Your identity assumes whatever form you give it. It is not determined by your circumstance, it is determined by you. You are the boss. It is natural that you feel depleted because you invested a lot of yourself into something that hasn’t worked out. But don’t confuse a loss of energy with a loss of identity. This is your circumstance, this is not you. This is your circumstance, this is not you. Repeat this enough until you start to believe it. Right now, you are identifying with feeling miserable, helpless, shameful, because you are focusing your energy on the shitty experience you had. You cannot grow from this and move on until you stop berating yourself. So how do you focus on the good when you’re having trouble finding it? You make a choice. You say to yourself, “I only give my energy to things that serve me. I only give my energy to what pushes me forward and uplifts me. I do not have time for anything less.” You will not solve all of your problems at once, but you must start.
You say you don’t have a dream to hold onto, but the thing with dreams is that they’re all in your head. I don’t think you need a dream right now. I think you need to get outside of yourself. When we look at ourselves up close, everything becomes blurry. Our worlds become a lot clearer with a little distance. Instead of a dream, give yourself a project. You mentioned you don’t have a name, but I’m pretty sure your name is Jane, so just to remind you of that we’re going to call this the Jane Project. The Jane Project involves writing a list of what gives you joy, power, and peace, and doing three of those things each day. This can range from going for a run, seeing a friend, taking a bath, climbing a mountain. Whatever feels good. The Jane Project is about treating yourself with care so you can heal. And once you start to heal, you will regain strength, and will be able to think about your next step. But you must recover first. The Jane Project also requires a little acting on your behalf. Let me explain. Do you watch House of Cards? Sometimes when I’m negotiating I’ll quietly say to myself, what would Claire Underwood do? And I take on a steely demeanor which allows me to act like the person I want to be in that moment. Because acting confident is sometimes as good as the real thing. By playing the part, we become the part. Want to be a gracious person? Act graciously. Want to be treated with respect? Act like someone who is treated with respect. Want to be someone who rises from their interesting incident with a little dignity? Instead of reaching for the wine bottle at 1PM on a Monday, think: what would my heroine do? Do that instead. Treat it as a game if you want, because it is. All of this is. We are all noones from nowhere, pretending we know what we’re doing, making it up as we go along.
If your own precious self and time is not motivation enough, do it for other people. Because the world needs people like you. The world needs more stories about people who threw themselves at something, tried their best, fell down and had a really hard time getting back up. Your story is the real deal. It is what everyone experiences and is too ashamed to talk about. So I’m asking you to think carefully about what you do next. When you look back in five years, what do you want to say about this time? That you let an interesting incident defeat you, and that was the end of it? Or, that you had an awful experience, got the life knocked out of you, but somehow pieced it back together? I hope you consider the latter. You fell down, you’ve kicked and screamed, you’ve lain there for long enough. It is time to make a choice.
The true essence of who you are, that thing that drives you, keeps you up at night, that pit-of-your-stomach-purpose—please don’t give up on it because this one expression of it didn’t work out. We all have a truth inside of us, but we are not responsible for how that truth comes out. You’ve held your own truth in your hands, given it shape and form, created all kinds of expectations for it and fought to uphold them. You have done everything right. But ultimately, you are not responsible for what your truth looks like in the end, you are only responsible for keeping it alive. You must nurture it, let it grow, push it in what you feel is the right direction, course-correct—but you must let it fall, you must be forgiving. You must not give up on it. You must keep it alive one day at a time. It is a hard job, but it is the only job worth doing.