Stumbling Forward and Failing with Finesse

My best lesson of 2009 was learning how to fail. More specifically, learning how to fail with finesse. The projects that failed—and even those that teetered precariously on the edge of failure—changed me, humbled me, made me sick to my stomach and motivated me.

With failure come the cliché-but-true aftereffects: you learn, grow, understand what not do next time around and are (hopefully) better for it. These aftereffects are the glints of light pushed up in the dark corners of failure. Some failures take a lot of stumbling in the dark, others are swift and quickly overcome.

There are plenty of people talking about failure. I have read about failing with humility, learning how to fail fast, and making a study of personal failures.

Clumsy failures

This past year I’ve failed at:

  • meeting work and school deadlines
  • being punctual
  • paying my car insurance bill on time
  • earning straight As in my graduate program (overachiever much?)
  • winning 1st place (or sometimes, even placing at all) in all of my dance competitions
  • heeding the advice of mentors
  • fulfilling others’ expectations–and perhaps more disappointing, meeting my own expectations

I’ve failed at many other things this year, but I’ll spare cataloging those for the sake of your patience. None of the above failures are individually a big deal; we’ve all been late to a lunch date, turned in a late bill payment, even ignored solid advice from those closest to us.

It’s that last phrase on the last item on the list–failing to meet the expectations I set for myself–that jars me to the core.

Don’t get it twisted–I don’t obsess over failure. Rather, as I reflect on 2009 and find footing in my life projects, I realize that 1) many of the failures were trivial and impermanent and 2) the failures that hit me a bit harder had valuable lessons.

But let me return to that last item on the list above.

Forfeiting before game time

I frequently manage to talk myself out of something before I’ve started. I’ve done this many times in the past year. I’m unreasonably good at finding every justification, excuse and (imaginary) angle of a situation that hasn’t even happened and then acting on those pretend scenarios. This bad habit lacks anything that resembles reason or forward movement. This bad habit is perpetuated through my fear and self-protection.

“What better way to avoid failure than to not try in the first place?!” I think, smirking at my supposed stroke of genius.

The problem with this illogic? I fail before I’ve even had the chance to fail. It’s failure squared. And it tends to hurt even more than the pain of trying and failing.

When I forfeit before the game has begun, I completely fail to meet the expectations I set for myself. I then bottle up all the shadows and pains of failure squared and cast dark, starless light on my other life projects. It’s an ugly domino effect. Falling short of my self-expectations is okay. Giving up on those self-expectations is not okay. It hurts my heart to even write about these failings, but I know that in laying bare one of my biggest weaknesses I can set in motion a healthier, more productive way to fail.

Failing with finesse

The hurdles, stumblings and failures of this past year have had a potent aftereffect: my capacity for gratitude. Failure has taught me about gratitude–gratitude for the lessons learned, for the unexpected opportunities along the failing way, for the people that buttressed my self-confidence and put up with my foul attitude. I have expanded the capacity in the gratitude corner of my heart. I’m blessed to be exactly where I’m at as well as to be able to move forward, even though I may stumble.

My failures of 2009 also shone a sweeter light on success. My successes stand tall, triumphant among the failures.

As I launch forward into continued and brand new life projects, I want to fail with finesse. Most importantly, I want to fail because I have taken risks and pursued my goals–and avoid failure squared and self-defeat. When I stumble–and I certainly will–I want to work on the subtlety and grace that are required to fail with finesse.

I’m participating in Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009 Blog Challenge. Click the link. Check it out. Pick one prompt or all 31. Reflect on your year. Day 24 Prompt: Learning experience. What was a lesson you learned this year that changed you?

  • ‘I wonder if “don’t get it twisted” is a Denver saying because I say that ALL the time.

    Also- straight A’s? you set some lofty goals for yourself.

    • My lofty goals are annoying. :)

      YOU say “don’t get it twisted” too?! No way! People give me a raised eyebrow when I say it. :) Glad to know I’m in good company, at least with one other Denverite.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • ‘I wonder if “don’t get it twisted” is a Denver saying because I say that ALL the time.

    Also- straight A’s? you set some lofty goals for yourself.

    • My lofty goals are annoying. :)

      YOU say “don’t get it twisted” too?! No way! People give me a raised eyebrow when I say it. :) Glad to know I’m in good company, at least with one other Denverite.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • “I frequently manage to talk myself out of something before I’ve started. I’ve done this many times in the past year.” I do this myself at times and it actually pisses me off and is pretty sad when as they say “half the battle is just showing up, yet like you I can find a reason and make it logical when it’s complete BS.

    Lessons learned this year kind of pertains to the above, I’ll say maybe the last few months I’ve been showing up at game time, regardless of what I think the outcome will be and you know, it’s not so bad, some things didn’t turn out quite like I wanted but, but they didn’t turn out horrible either. Like you said “Falling short of my self-expectations is okay. Giving up on those self-expectations is not okay.”

    Good post Caligator, all the best for 2010 and here’s to showing up for every game no matter what. Happy New Years!

    • Domenick, I really appreciate you sharing that. It’s is encouraging to hear what you’ve been through. Showing up really is half the battle. Kudos to you for making the concerted (sometimes challenging, I’m sure) effort to show up.

      Thanks for stopping by this little space o’ mine and commenting. I really appreciate it. :)

  • “I frequently manage to talk myself out of something before I’ve started. I’ve done this many times in the past year.” I do this myself at times and it actually pisses me off and is pretty sad when as they say “half the battle is just showing up, yet like you I can find a reason and make it logical when it’s complete BS.

    Lessons learned this year kind of pertains to the above, I’ll say maybe the last few months I’ve been showing up at game time, regardless of what I think the outcome will be and you know, it’s not so bad, some things didn’t turn out quite like I wanted but, but they didn’t turn out horrible either. Like you said “Falling short of my self-expectations is okay. Giving up on those self-expectations is not okay.”

    Good post Caligator, all the best for 2010 and here’s to showing up for every game no matter what. Happy New Years!

    • Domenick, I really appreciate you sharing that. It’s is encouraging to hear what you’ve been through. Showing up really is half the battle. Kudos to you for making the concerted (sometimes challenging, I’m sure) effort to show up.

      Thanks for stopping by this little space o’ mine and commenting. I really appreciate it. :)

  • Easily one of the sweetest, warmest, and brightest posts I’ve read this year. Way to go out with a graceful bang, Cali.

    May you find awe-inspiring success, and may you fail with the greatest finesse in the new year.

    • I’m seriously humbled, Terry. Thanks to you and Kia for being among the amazing souls who “buttressed my self-confidence” and lent a helping hand when I stumbled. <3

  • Easily one of the sweetest, warmest, and brightest posts I’ve read this year. Way to go out with a graceful bang, Cali.

    May you find awe-inspiring success, and may you fail with the greatest finesse in the new year.

    • I’m seriously humbled, Terry. Thanks to you and Kia for being among the amazing souls who “buttressed my self-confidence” and lent a helping hand when I stumbled. <3

  • Sarah Welch

    Love this–especially “failure squared”! I have that issue as well. I’m going to try to keep this in mind. It certainly sounds worse than just plain failure!

    May you make your own awesome luck in the new year!

    • Thank you vury vury much, Sarah! :) Isn’t it kind of astounding that we can shut down before we’ve begun? The brain certainly is a powerful thing. Here’s to 2010 and learning how to use those, um, “over-analyzing” skills to push forward. :)

  • Sarah Welch

    Love this–especially “failure squared”! I have that issue as well. I’m going to try to keep this in mind. It certainly sounds worse than just plain failure!

    May you make your own awesome luck in the new year!

    • Thank you vury vury much, Sarah! :) Isn’t it kind of astounding that we can shut down before we’ve begun? The brain certainly is a powerful thing. Here’s to 2010 and learning how to use those, um, “over-analyzing” skills to push forward. :)

  • Great words and I enjoy your process and authenticity. Here’s to failing with style! because the failures aren’t the story, after all, only a catalyst in the adventure

    • Kendall, Thanks. Just thanks. I enjoy your blog, and so you time and words spent here mean a lot. I think “a catalyst in the adventure” could be a motto. Or a blog entry. Would love to hear YOUR thoughts. :)

  • Great words and I enjoy your process and authenticity. Here’s to failing with style! because the failures aren’t the story, after all, only a catalyst in the adventure

    • Kendall, Thanks. Just thanks. I enjoy your blog, and so you time and words spent here mean a lot. I think “a catalyst in the adventure” could be a motto. Or a blog entry. Would love to hear YOUR thoughts. :)

  • Liz

    I have SO failed at paying my car insurance bill on time as well so don’t feel too bad :) You may have failed at some things but you win at being awesome. <3

  • Liz

    I have SO failed at paying my car insurance bill on time as well so don’t feel too bad :) You may have failed at some things but you win at being awesome. <3

    • Aw Liz! <3 <3 <3

  • Les

    Cali,
    Eloquent words. I can particularly relate to the “failure squared” concept. I turned 45 this month and, sadly, I’ve lived the “failure squared” life for far too long. But, this year, with the help of friends, I’ve managed to turn things around. I’ve got a long way to go but I’m making progress and learning to “fail with finesse.”

    All the best to you in the coming year and beyond. Let’s make 2010 our year when we didn’t fail but rather finished the game, even if we didn’t win.

    Cheers and a very Happy New Year to you!

    • Les, I say “kudos!” to you for making a turnaround…and having friends help you along the way.

      Thanks for stopping by. And cheers to finishing the game!

  • Les

    Cali,
    Eloquent words. I can particularly relate to the “failure squared” concept. I turned 45 this month and, sadly, I’ve lived the “failure squared” life for far too long. But, this year, with the help of friends, I’ve managed to turn things around. I’ve got a long way to go but I’m making progress and learning to “fail with finesse.”

    All the best to you in the coming year and beyond. Let’s make 2010 our year when we didn’t fail but rather finished the game, even if we didn’t win.

    Cheers and a very Happy New Year to you!

    • Les, I say “kudos!” to you for making a turnaround…and having friends help you along the way.

      Thanks for stopping by. And cheers to finishing the game!

  • Cali, I love love love this post! Accepting failures with incredible grace. I have learned a lot from you and I thank you for that! peace & love in 2010!
    xox

    • As always, Amy – thanks for your kind words. I’m so happy we’ve connected on the social web, and I look forward to chatting with you and reading your blog this year! :)

  • Cali, I love love love this post! Accepting failures with incredible grace. I have learned a lot from you and I thank you for that! peace & love in 2010!
    xox

    • As always, Amy – thanks for your kind words. I’m so happy we’ve connected on the social web, and I look forward to chatting with you and reading your blog this year! :)

  • I remember (a feat in itself) the dean of students speaking at the convocation of my freshman year of college. Her name was Harriet Sheridan, a bright and formidable woman, and this is how she challenged the undergraduates in the auditorium: “Never be afraid to fail.”

    I can’t say I’ve always followed that advice; funny how fear has a way of creeping in – especially as we age. Maybe because the older we are, the more we realize how things can go wrong. When we’re young and optimistic, obstacles have a different color to them.

    Reading your post I’m reminded to fail with flair and grace and not to be afraid of it. And I hadn’t thought about Dean Sheridan in ages, thanks for triggering that memory. She was a special woman and a great role model.

    • Wow – thank you for sharing that memory. Reading your words is inspiring to me.

      You hit it on the head in that fear is the penultimate bedfellow of failure. For where I’m at in my life right now, I think my fear of failure really has to do with my pride. I’m scared to fail because I’m scared to be wrong, to fall on my face, to not “get it right.” And while I can take a step back and assess that that kind of fear is unreasonable (even as I type this), it still exists.

      I’m taking the approach that if I keep moving, I can push through fear.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment!

  • I remember (a feat in itself) the dean of students speaking at the convocation of my freshman year of college. Her name was Harriet Sheridan, a bright and formidable woman, and this is how she challenged the undergraduates in the auditorium: “Never be afraid to fail.”

    I can’t say I’ve always followed that advice; funny how fear has a way of creeping in – especially as we age. Maybe because the older we are, the more we realize how things can go wrong. When we’re young and optimistic, obstacles have a different color to them.

    Reading your post I’m reminded to fail with flair and grace and not to be afraid of it. And I hadn’t thought about Dean Sheridan in ages, thanks for triggering that memory. She was a special woman and a great role model.

    • Wow – thank you for sharing that memory. Reading your words is inspiring to me.

      You hit it on the head in that fear is the penultimate bedfellow of failure. For where I’m at in my life right now, I think my fear of failure really has to do with my pride. I’m scared to fail because I’m scared to be wrong, to fall on my face, to not “get it right.” And while I can take a step back and assess that that kind of fear is unreasonable (even as I type this), it still exists.

      I’m taking the approach that if I keep moving, I can push through fear.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment!

  • tffany

    See, the thing about recognizinf failure is that it just helps you realize who and what you want to be, what you’re afraid of, and how you want to rebalance your energies. It helps you know yourself and your limits.

    The other thing, is that even though you were not meeting your goals, at the end of the year, you are still standing, with more clarity and a better sense of your own depth. The losses you feel will pass. The gains you made are indelible.

    One of my favorite quotes is: “We don’t look for people who never fail. We look for people who never give up.”

    • Thanks, Tiffany. You’ve been one of the key people in my life who has taught me about what failure means…and you’ve showed me that failure is a part of the process.

      I really like that quote. That’s going on a sticky note on my computer. :)

  • tffany

    See, the thing about recognizinf failure is that it just helps you realize who and what you want to be, what you’re afraid of, and how you want to rebalance your energies. It helps you know yourself and your limits.

    The other thing, is that even though you were not meeting your goals, at the end of the year, you are still standing, with more clarity and a better sense of your own depth. The losses you feel will pass. The gains you made are indelible.

    One of my favorite quotes is: “We don’t look for people who never fail. We look for people who never give up.”

    • Thanks, Tiffany. You’ve been one of the key people in my life who has taught me about what failure means…and you’ve showed me that failure is a part of the process.

      I really like that quote. That’s going on a sticky note on my computer. :)

  • Linnae

    Luckily, you are an epic success at general awesomeness–which is only achievable by acknowledging lessons learned.

    • Oh, Linnae…You rock. Can I put that on my business card? Perhaps my tagline? “An epic success at general awesomeness” I THINK I’M GONNA DO IT!

      In seriousness, you’re absolutely right: acknowledging lessons learned. I think I have a bad habit of sticking my head in the sand…so taking the teeny-tiny step to reflect on my failures has proven to be painful *and* productive.

      Thanks for stopping by, my dear. <3

  • Linnae

    Luckily, you are an epic success at general awesomeness–which is only achievable by acknowledging lessons learned.

    • Oh, Linnae…You rock. Can I put that on my business card? Perhaps my tagline? “An epic success at general awesomeness” I THINK I’M GONNA DO IT!

      In seriousness, you’re absolutely right: acknowledging lessons learned. I think I have a bad habit of sticking my head in the sand…so taking the teeny-tiny step to reflect on my failures has proven to be painful *and* productive.

      Thanks for stopping by, my dear. <3

  • How is it that I didn’t know you had this fabulous blog?!? I’m adding you to my RSS reader ASAP!

  • How is it that I didn’t know you had this fabulous blog?!? I’m adding you to my RSS reader ASAP!

    • Aww, Allen! Thank you! ^_^

  • Loved this, I fail with finesse pretty much everday.

    • Chelsea, You’d have finesse in anything you did…failing or succeeding. :)

  • Loved this, I fail with finesse pretty much everday.

    • Chelsea, You’d have finesse in anything you did…failing or succeeding. :)

  • Teevee

    I feel ya Cali ! I refer to it as failing forward( I’m sure I stole it from someone)! It takes a brave person to put themselves out there and doing things outside of their comfort zone. Yet that’s the only time of growth.

    It’s pretty cool to read that despite how we attack life we still make excuses at times. I was just talking about that very thing with a friend. I will come up with every justification to chicken out sometimes. What’s crazier is that my body will help too by either getting a headache or something weird like that. George Leonard refers all this as “homeostasis” in his book Mastery. Our mind and body simply trying to keep us in the cfort zone.

    Thank you for your honest post and I look forward to reading more about your journey.

    • Thank you for sharing! And I like “failing forward” — I’d say that is spot-on.

      Isn’t it fascinating that our mind synchs up with our body in that way? It’s crazy. But knowing that makes me realize how important is for me to stay (mentally) positive. That way, I can try to avoid the FULL effects of letting failure and excuses take me over.

      Glad we connected!

  • Teevee

    I feel ya Cali ! I refer to it as failing forward( I’m sure I stole it from someone)! It takes a brave person to put themselves out there and doing things outside of their comfort zone. Yet that’s the only time of growth.

    It’s pretty cool to read that despite how we attack life we still make excuses at times. I was just talking about that very thing with a friend. I will come up with every justification to chicken out sometimes. What’s crazier is that my body will help too by either getting a headache or something weird like that. George Leonard refers all this as “homeostasis” in his book Mastery. Our mind and body simply trying to keep us in the cfort zone.

    Thank you for your honest post and I look forward to reading more about your journey.

    • Thank you for sharing! And I like “failing forward” — I’d say that is spot-on.

      Isn’t it fascinating that our mind synchs up with our body in that way? It’s crazy. But knowing that makes me realize how important is for me to stay (mentally) positive. That way, I can try to avoid the FULL effects of letting failure and excuses take me over.

      Glad we connected!

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