Freedom From Failure

A big part of my job as a life coach is to help people who feel “stuck.” Now stuck can mean a lot of different things. It can mean: “I don’t know what to do next.” It can mean: “I know what to do, but don’t want to do it.” It can mean: “I don’t believe I can do it.” It can mean many, many different things to different people. One of the things it seems to mean pretty regularly is: “I’m afraid if I do the thing (whatever the thing is), I’m going to fail.”

Well boy howdy do I know what that’s all about. If I’m really honest I’m afraid I’m going to fail every single day. Wow. I never really think about it that way and just saying that out loud felt pretty awful, but it’s true. Starting a business is no small thing, and you have to do a lot of new stuff that makes you uncomfortable, and you have to do it even when you think you’re going to fail. The same is true lots of places, though, isn’t it? It’s not just all of us loony self-employed people who face this.

Failure is part of doing something bigger than what you're doing now.Anybody who wants something big, who wants to get to the next level in their own personal and/or professional development is going to have moments where they think they could fail. I experience it as a musician. We try harder songs; we use more complex arrangements. We choose styles we’ve not worked with before. We don’t do that ALL of the time. We have a base of stuff that we do with confidence, and then a couple that are heart pounders until we’ve played them enough that they become part of the base and we choose a new really hard song. THIS is how we grow.

This is how we grow unless we quit before we get anywhere. See growing, changing, being more, feeling better, feeling different, expanding, evolving will ALL lead to fear and discomfort. They will. As evolved as we may be technologically, our primitive brains are still pretty simple and clear about what they’re interested in: survival. How do we survive? Well, we stick with what’s working. Never mind if it is not fulfilling; that is not the question your brain is interested in. For your primitive brain, only one question matters: has it kept us alive? Yes? Great – that works. Don’t change because THAT might kill us. Done.

So when we move to change, to grow, to experiment, our brain unleashes every story it can think of to keep us from moving down that road. Some of these are subtle: “But you’re really great at what you’re doing right now.” Some of them are not: “If you do that you could lose EVERYTHING and then we’ll be homeless, and then we’ll die.” We are so afraid to fail that we quit before there’s even the slightest possibility of failing. And as a result, we stay the same. We don’t learn new skills. We don’t learn to conquer (okay, manage but conquer sounds so glorious) our fears. We don’t learn how to be even better than we are.

You get to decide what failure is.The thing about failure is that we can be free from it without quitting. Brooke Castillo recently reminded me (and whoever else was watching) that we each get to define what failing means. You cannot fail anywhere but in your own mind, because you are the one who decides when you have failed. You are the one who decides that what you have done isn’t enough or has no value or isn’t just the rocky beginning to something new and amazing. You get to decide what failing looks like and THEN you get to decide what to do when that happens. Failing is both inevitable and totally optional.¬†You have total control over failure. How’s that for some freedom?

You may decide that failure doesn’t exist at all. You may decide that failing at new things is the best way to figure out how to do them. You may decide that building up some grit by failing a few times will help you get through the work to follow. You may decide that failing is a thing, that you will do it and that when you will do, it will be your job to figure out what did and didn’t work and to see if there’s something you can do different, better, if there’s a thought you can take away from it that will change how you interact with the world. You are totally free from failure, because each failure is our own. We define it. We react to it or embrace it. We recover or retreat. We are free.

What would you do today if you weren’t afraid to fail?

Are You Hanging Out On the Sidelines?

September 5th was the first day of school for my twin 5th graders, and just like all parents on the first day of school, I had a morning full of disbelief and wonder that they are already this age, that time is going just as fast as my parents and grandparents always said it would, and that the work I needed to do this morning to help them get there was decidedly less than it has been in the past. As their needs change, I have the opportunity to notice patterns that have developed, scratch that, patterns that I have chosen over the years. I’ve seen it all summer. I have chosen on many occasions for the past 10 years, to sit on the sidelines.

I noticed when we were at the beach with old friends and the other Mom quickly volunteered to go in with all four, because in the past I have not wanted to. I noticed it at the pool with my fabulous sister-in-law when she volunteered to go play sharks and minnows with our kids because in the past I have not wanted to. I noticed it when my kids were surprised at the amusement park when I went on all but one ride with them – they had forgotten that I actually like roller coasters and expected me to sit this one out as well.

Slide1Now, to be fair, raising kids can be tiring. Raising twins (especially the early years) can be insanely tiring. Raising twins as an older Mom – you get the picture. So I think a fair amount of my sideline sitting was initially an attempt to just grab a few minutes of peace while they were available to me. Everyone is happy, occupied, and cared for. I’m going to just be for a minute. I think maybe this was the intention, but I don’t actually recall ever really doing that. I don’t actually recall ever consciously choosing to make peace in that moment.

I remember worrying: watching the water, noticing their interactions, repositioning umbrellas, watching for sunburn, making sure the lunches were in the shade, wondering if whichever adult they were with was watching (they always were), running through the plans for the rest of the day, being mindful of pitfalls and problems that might arise, looking for lips turning blue, looking for missteps, watching for… This was one popular version of taking a break. I think another popular version involved me reviewing all of the ways I had been burdened.

I do tend to be the planner and preparer in the family, so I could bathe in some resentment about that. I could reflect on the injustice of all of the work I did to get us to that point in the day. I could reflect on the lack of worry on my husband’s part as evidence that I was STILL doing more than my share (my share of the neurotic worry pile). I’m pretty sure the times that I actually used my time sitting back, out of the fray, to REST could be counted on one hand, and that’s a 10 year period we’re talking about. I held myself back and then used that time to make myself feel terrible; sometimes I even just took the simple route and made myself feel terrible about holding myself back.

For the past several days I’ve been doing a freedom challenge. Each day I take some action that feels a little freeing, that makes me feel more free, less constrained, less confined, maybe even a little less tame, and it has made me think a lot about my time on the sidelines. Where were those choices coming from, if they weren’t really about rest and a breather? Why couldn’t I just use them as rest or a breather? What was I doing on the sidelines? Did it all just become a habit? Was my non-participation a default that then made me so uncomfortable I had to be miserable about it?

There are long answers to those questions, and considering them as I do my freedom challenge has really opened up some space for me to move, to feel, and to choose how I WANT to engage. I can still say no – as I did to the last roller coaster of the day when I felt like my head would explode if I allowed it to get rattled around again.

I’ve seen a lot of memes and posts that encourage us NEVER to sit on the sidelines. Be the Mom who’s in the water. Be the Mom who finger paints. Be the Mom playing on the floor. Be the Mom who’s in it. And I think there’s some value to that message for people who need some encouragement, but I think what really matters when we notice that we’re on the sidelines is our reason for being there and how we treat ourselves as we sit. Are you choosing it? Does it feel like freedom, like rest, like a pause rather than a default? Does it feel like a self-imposed sentence, something you “have” to do because…, something that allows you to hide?

Slide2The sidelines exist for a reason, and that’s because we all need to take a break once in a while. We all need to come off the field, hydrate, catch our breath, figure out what’s next. Some need to be there more than others. If you’re spending a lot of time on the sidelines, maybe it’s time to ask yourself if you like your reason. Maybe it’s time to get back in the game. I’d love to help.

The Earth is Slippery: Aztec Wisdom… Yeah, You Heard That Right

A few weeks ago, on our annual nerdy vacation at The Chautauqua Institution, we got to hear some really great lectures. Well, we always hear really great lectures, but this year I was paying extra special attention. I even took notes – yeah, I was serious about the nerdy vacation comment. As the weeks have gone by since we were there, it’s been interesting to see which ideas have really stuck with me. Some lectures seemed really great when they were delivered, but didn’t really have any staying power; others seemed kind of so-so when I was listening, but took root. One of the ideas I heard was both – it struck me at the time and it keeps coming back because I find it just so darned useful.

The speaker was Sebastian Purcell, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. His presentation was on Aztec philosophy as a a guide for happiness in the modern world. I admit I was skeptical, because the idea of looking to the Aztecs for guidance on happiness didn’t really fit with my limited understanding of Aztec culture. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The idea that got me was this one: The earth is slippery.

You’re like, really? That’s the big idea? That the earth is slippery? And what the hell does that mean anyway? What?

Slide1Yeah. That’s it. It was a core part of the Aztec worldview to believe that the world is slippery, which means we will fall down. We will make mistakes. Things happen that are out of control that will push us over. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes its our own fault, and sometimes it’s not. The earth is slippery. We can only take so many steps without risking a fall every now and then. Can you see where we’re going here? Professor Purcell pointed out that this idea meant that bad or unpleasant things that happen can often be chalked up to error rather than a lack of reason. In other words, sometimes stuff just happens and everyone makes mistakes no matter how hard they try, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how right their purpose.

Is this revolutionary? Well no, if we’re focused on the messages we explicitly give our children when they are hurting because they’ve messed up and we’re trying to comfort them, but ALL of the OTHER messages (that we give them AND ourselves) are pretty different aren’t they? The messages we send and receive say that the world is drowning in opportunity, that all you need to do is work hard enough (well, and harder than the person next to you), and you will succeed. This very American dreamy message is complicated. There’s an element to this lesson on perseverance that I am TOTALLY down with. Pursuing your thing doggedly is the best way to “succeed” at it – whatever “succeed” means. There’s also a dark side to our failure to really embrace the idea that the earth is slippery.

The dark side of not embracing the slipperiness of earth is that when things go awry, it is all our fault. When things don’t pan out, we are flawed. When we’re not achieving what we want, we need to reexamine everything from our actions to the very foundation of the dream itself. These are all versions of the big one, the giant yuck, the grandaddy of all self-abuse: when bad things happen, I deserve them because I’m not good enough. If the earth is not slippery, we fall because we are clumsy, careless, lazy. If the earth is not slippery, we fail because we are not determined, because we aren’t smart enough, because we are unworthy. If the earth is not slippery, our blame can only be placed on ourselves.

Slide2There are times we are at fault. There are times other people make things hard for us. There are times our institutions fail us. There are times when bad things happen that have nothing to do with our worth. There are times when things don’t work out. There are times when the earth is slippery. If we can just acknowledge that, we can get on with the business of our recovery, our work around, our new approach, our get back up and try again without the full on inquisition of our souls. Sometimes we fall because the earth is slippery.

A Simple, But Not Easy Truth

One of the hardest things for most of my clients to accept is that it is possible to love themselves just as they are.

I understand the difficulty because they’ve come to me at a time of some kind of distress; something is wrong, and more often than not they’ve diagnosed that the thing that is wrong is THEM, like internally, inherently, and deeply. I’m familiar with this diagnosis as it is one I found for myself for many years: “There’s something wrong with me.” I could scoop up all kinds of crap with that cup. It’s amazing what kind of evidence you can find for such a thought if you want to keep it. It’s a great big general crap collecting and destruction generating belief. Vague enough to be right and specific enough to really hurt, just like we them, eh?

Slide1Here’s the thing, I tell them. You can love yourself and fix this or you can hate yourself and fix it. I have opinions about which will work better, but I’d like to know what yours are. It’s interesting because most people seem to go with the hate it and fix it school when it comes to themselves. We believe we have to despise ourselves, or at least the part that’s generating the problem in question. We believe that if we love it, we won’t fix it, that somehow loving it will make us complacent, accepting of the offending flaw, that we will forever carry the extra weight or the bad judgment or the poor career choice. We can only fix it through strict discipline and punishment.

Wow.

This is one of those moments when I am stunned by the way we treat ourselves as compared to the way that we treat others. With ourselves there is no quarter. With others… I’m pretty sure we love in spite of flaws all the time, like every single day. Do we dismiss other people because of one flaw? Do we hate them until they fix themselves completely? Do we have to discipline them into being alright for us? That’s a no.

The only relationship I can think of where one might even be tempted to do this from a disciplinary standpoint is the parent/child relationship and even then there is no hating and disciplining. There is loving and correcting. There is loving WHILE they learn, WHILE they grow, WHILE they change. There is loving WHILE they are imperfect, WHILE they make mistakes, WHILE they do the wrong things.

Slide2Could you learn to love yourself and make change if you pretended for a moment that you were your own child? What if you were raising yourself? What kind of adult would you like to help bring into the world? What kind of human would you like to help create? How would you treat yourself if you were simply raising yourself, taking yourself from one stage of development to the next, monitoring your own growth and change, noting problems as they arise, thinking about them and being encouraging, asking questions when it doesn’t make sense? How would that feel? I think it would feel a whole lot more like love. And I think change that comes from love is the change that works, and it works because it FEELS good. It feels good to accept ourselves. It feels like water on cracked earth. It feels so necessary and so overdue.

But I don’t know how, you say. I don’t know what that means. I say start small. Think of one thing you love about yourself. Sit, with your eyes closed and really focus all of your attention on that one thing. Feel into it. Let yourself delight in it. Allow yourself to feel your own affection for as long as you can tolerate it. See what happens. It just might change everything. Why? Because that kind of feeling expands; it grows and self-acceptance that is taken in as a small seed grows the fruit of love right there in your scared heart. It will be okay. You can still want to change, even after you learn to love yourself. I promise.

Are You Close to Ready?

Slide1Yesterday I got an e-mail from the choir director at church, reminding us that the children’s choir would be performing, giving details about when kids needed to be there, and with a youtube link of the song being performed by another children’s choir (she’s so smart). I reminded my daughter that they were singing this morning and she said: “Mom, I’m not even CLOSE to ready!” I dutifully retrieved the e-mail, pulled up the youtube and sent her on her way to prepare. She emerged 20 minutes later, confidence restored, saying she thinks she even remembers all the words now.

I thought more about this interaction later and I just love it for a couple of reasons. First of all there was a lot of drama in her reaction, which I tried very hard not to find humor in. Secondly she said it just the way I would, hands out, horror face. And finally, the part that struck me later: the realistic goal. Continue reading