I hate admitting failure. And yet, if we’re going to be mature adults it’s a skill we have to practice. Truth be told it’s one of the best opportunities for learning and growth we will ever get.
So here goes: I totally failed. I set out this year to conduct an experiment in “slow living.” Slow living is all the rage in some circles. In some ways it’s a hugely privileged experiment. The vast majority of the world is just trying to survive, to say nothing about “experimenting” with ways to slow down their lives. When you are working all the time just to keep body and soul together someone telling you to slow down is likely to be unhelpful.
But here I am, a comfortable middle class person in a comfortable country.
My life (and probably yours) has for a long time been filled with unnecessary busyness. Not the sort of busyness that helps us survive, just the sort that fills hours of the day. The sort that keeps us from thinking too much.
I started this year feeling strongly that I needed to be more intentional about the ways I spent my time, money, and energy. “Slow living” has become a bit of a buzz word I suppose. Like minimalism, or “natural,” it means different things to different people. I interpreted it my own way and set out to (in a year mind you) change how to related to my calendar, my money, and pretty much everything else.
Have I mentioned I’m an incurable optimist?
Now I know better. I’m the person who gave up New Years resolutions; because they don’t work. But, I told myself, this is different! And so off we went. Each month a new challenge, each month things to try and to learn.
Where it all went wrong
Ten months into the year and I’m ready to call my “slow living” experiment a failure. Mostly because I haven’t actually set myself a monthly challenge since June. And because I’m honest enough to know November and December are not the months I’m going to pick it back up.
That’s OK. We have fallen for this notion that failure is to be avoided at all costs. But the only way to avoid failure is to not try. My experiment failed for a host of reasons.
- It was too vague to begin with (slow living is incredibly broad).
- I went from being a part time associate at an established church to being in charge of a tiny mission congregation.
- My beloved spouse also changed jobs mid year.
- We got a new puppy, and you get the idea.
Basically I started the year with a fuzzy feeling of needing to do something and then I did a lot of things.
So, it’s an odd sort of failure, but the sort I (and I hope others) can all learn from.
What went right
The first thing to learn is that failure doesn’t mean that I wasted my time. Because I didn’t! I didn’t succeed, but I did something and that matters. When we are so afraid of failure that we don’t start at all, that’s the worst thing can do. When I sat down to write this article I thought it would be dreadfully bleak, but then I made a list of all the things that did come out of this experiment:
- I paid better attention to my time, my relationships, and my own inner healthy.
- I became far more intentional about the clothes I wear and the decisions I make around fashion. (I’ve totally changed how I buy clothing. I haven’t bought a single item with synthetic fibers in the last year. I now buy used first, and then go to brands that pay living wages and support sustainable practices.)
- I gave myself permission to create a morning that worked for me. (Instead of following the “get up earlier and earlier” fads.)
- I was reminded that I don’t have to do it all, and that I can ask for help.
- I got rid of so much stuff that was cluttering up my life. (And invested in a few bits that will last a lifetime.)
- I started quilting again (I love making things)!
See sitting here in November I could look at the whole year as a huge failure and get completely discouraged. Or I could look at the places where I learned (from when stuff went right and when it didn’t) and walk away wiser than before.
It’s All Learning
One of the things I was reminded of is that life happens. Best intentions aside sometimes life just happens and we can either get really upset about that or we can accept it and move on. I probably would have had far more success implementing the parts of this experiment if I hadn’t moved to a more demanding and totally new (to me) job.
But that new job is wonderful. I love my people, I love what I do, I am all around so much happier and more fulfilled with the work I am doing now. So it got in the way of an experiment, so what. Life they say is what happens when you are making other plans. And the whole point of slow living is to cut out the busyness in favor of substance. My job change could certainly be seen that way.
Nothing from which we learn is ever wasted. Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself staring down the very real possibility of failure. That doesn’t mean that sometimes failure isn’t really costly, but if we can learn from it then the cost isn’t quite so painful.
I took a number of lessons away from my failed challenge: big fuzzy projects aren’t my thing. I need better planning, measurable steps, and a goal to strive for (“be better” is too fuzzy folks.) And learning helps you avoid the same failure a second time. If I were to choose to do this challenge again I would know that I needed to plan out each month’s challenge in advance. I would need to set concrete and measurable goals for each monthly challenge, so I had something to work towards, etc.
If it’s all learning, the second way we can learn from failure is to get curious. Most of us leave curiosity behind with our toys in childhood. That’s a shame, because curiosity is perhaps the single best tool for growth.
If it’s been a while since you engaged in wild curiosity here’s a trick, ask yourself “wondering” questions. Here’s some examples:
- I wonder what made me want to do this challenge in the first place?
- I wonder what would have happened if I’d gotten a friend to do this with me?
- I wonder how I could have changed my plans once I changed jobs?
- I wonder if there’s something keeping me from wanting to go deeper in this process?
- I wonder if maybe “slow living” wasn’t what I really wanted?
Wondering questions give us permission to come up with an unexpected answer. A wondering question doesn’t imply a right or wrong answer, it invites us to use our imaginations, interrogate our subconscious, and maybe admit things we’ve been dancing around. Wondering also let’s us entertain new possibilities and examine our choices with less judgement.
One of the reasons my project didn’t succeed the way I would have liked is that I did it all by myself. No one to help me, hold me accountable, learn from, or rely on. Just me, messing about with my life to see what would happen. That’s no fun.
It would be best of course to have involved other folks before I started. My spouse say, or a friend who had a similar feeling. But even after failure it can be helpful to bring in a trusted person to help us sort through the mess, figure out what went wrong and suggest ways to try again. I am always surprised at how easily outsiders can see things that are blind to us.
Have you ever tried to edit your own writing, maybe a term paper, or even an important email. If you are anything like me a few seconds after you hit send you see all the typos you read right over three times. That’s normal, and it’s why getting an outside view of the wreckage is a really good idea.
Not only can other people see things we can’t (because of our assumptions), they also tend to have different skills than we do making them likely to suggest changes we would never think of.
I could spend a lot of time beating myself up for dropping the ball on something so important, after all I promised my readers a year’s challenge and I totally failed to deliver.
But here’s the thing. Beating myself up won’t change the past. Nothing will change what has already happened. So forgive yourself. Learn from your mistakes, take the time to really figure out what went wrong, make amends if necessary (I hope this post is that for my readers), and then move on.
You and I are not perfect. And that’s OK. We never stop learning or growing so long as we stay curious, so long as we still want to be better than we were. Our lives don’t have a destination, they are simply a journey. This year had highs and lows. So will next year, and the one after that.