Am I the only one that cringes when I hear ‘I just don’t want to be last’? I fucking hope not.
The inherent fear of being the worst at something highlights how utterly fucked The System we have created is. It’s hard to know whether people are afraid of feeling like a failure or looking like one. Perhaps a little from column A, a little from column B. It’s also probably the reason so many of us trap ourselves in place – better not to try than to fail – or been seen to fail. This article will hopefully set that bullshit aflame.
I gave up trying somewhere in my early early years and completely gave up in my teens. School felt like a black hole of wasted time and energy, controlled by mirthless tyrants. Each day in class the creative life force was hoovered out of me. Over time I saw myself become a disenchanted apparition. Looking at childhood photos, one sees a visible decline from bright toddler to a pained and forced smile in high school. Many formative events set this downward trajectory, created by adults in a position of authority deciding the kid in front of them was worthless or worth discouraging for who knows why.
In a rare effort to prove to themselves and others this kid could do well in a technical subject, they studied themselves into a top of the class grade and met with accusations from the adult in a position of authority they had cheated, refusing to believe them capable. A short story of which they were particularly proud received accusations of plagiarising a film the adult in a position of authority was unlikely to have seen. At home they found it impossible tell what was to be considered an achievement worthy of praise. They could do no wrong in one parent’s eyes regardless of effort and the other appeared to straight up not give a fuck. At school they felt anything they did was met with derision. All of this meant that both failure and success brought about defeat. What then was the point in any of it?
Jangling Chains of Sabotage
Haunted by the unkillable dread of success or failure yielding the same outcome, a creeping paranoia wraps itself in every decision. Any pursuit feels as though there is a timer on inevitable disappointment of peers and authority and/or confirmation of ones own worthlessness. The result is falling short of any external or self-imposed standard: confirming what was already known. Everything results in common failure. For decades I watched this ghost avoid preparation for desperate aspirations resulting in always missing the mark, endless dismay and disappointment at it’s own hand.
The above probably sounds like a classic Gen X story of an over sensitive kid, but that is an under-complication wrought to justify (read as: excuse) perpetually re-enacting a cycle of falling short through self defeat. This is something that can and does happen to any person at any time from any generation when factors congregate in enough volume and frequency. The ghost in this story had an upbringing fairly free of drama, never friendless, never penniless, never persecuted, never hunted, never hated.
A life which in today’s terms would be called privileged still managed to kill the spark that may have otherwise been the result of a very different path. As soon as we add some of the hardships listed above, life becomes exponentially more difficult. Although this account is a sample of one, I’m certain many experience or have experienced similar situations. The outcome isn’t always the same – some are galvanised into disproving negativity levelled at them, but they can remain haunted by the spectre of defeat and the energy or momentum created by what I call Negative Inspiration puts a human – regardless of lofty achievement – in a pretty deep, dark “😬 What the fuck is wrong with them?” type place. Remember: stay hard and don’t be a bitch though, right?
Fail Your Failure
Trying to write this next bit feels like attempting to take a bite out of a spy balloon sized apple, but here goes.
The moral associations many of us are led to feel regarding the concept of failure are total invention. Created by the same ‘oppress potential for success’ fuckpigs that brought you the idea of “laziness”. Some might not be ready to hear laziness is fake, so we’ll concentrate on failure being bullshit for now. Failure is essentially a lack of fitness. It’s reaching a point where we are operating beyond our current level of adaption. When I say fitness, I’m not talking about how many crunches you can do. I’m talking about the actual meaning of fitness.
the quality of being suitable to fulfil a particular role or taskNew Oxford American Dictionary
Another word for fitness might be suitability. We’ll talk more about this idea another time, but here is where we divorce the moral invention of failure and the economy of shame with the task appropriate version of failure. Failure simply means were ill-equipped to achieve the intended task. This can be due to intrinsic, extrinsic – or both – factors, but a level-headed appraisal of these can allow for finding blameless cause behind what went well and what didn’t, along with lessons learned and potential ways to find success on the next task. This can be called an After Action Report (AAR), and broadly speaking there are 4 aspects to consider:
- Recap – What was the expected outcome?
- Review – What was that actual outcome?
- Analyse – What went well and why?
- Adapt – What can be improved upon and how?
This activity can assist in removing the manufactured shame debt associated with what I call common failure. If we get to the third section and the analysis is “Nothing went well I fucked it up I’m useless everything is shit fuck this.” We’d hopefully identify that we’re stinging from common failure, so we might need to wait a bit before heading back to our AAR. The above is not to say that our mistakes can’t (for example) cause harm to others resulting in genuine emotional implications, but the point here is failures hold key information that should assist us in continuing to adapt. Common failure on the other hand is what holds us in place. Don’t give common failure any air.
“Failure is not an option” is one of the most absurd phrases in the English language. It was likely created by someone making perfectionistic demands of others, rather than realistic demands of themselves. To assert failure can’t happen in a given scenario is magical thinking, suggesting whatever has been planned was cooked up by an idiot in the first place.
Adapt to Failure / Failure to Adapt
I’ve been fortunate in so far as having a cohort of non-judgemental friends supporting me as I stumble through life. This has meant that sparks of inspiration were nurtured into flame and confidence grew to attempt new things as life progressed. The only time I didn’t struggle with making something happen was when someone I cared about asked me to do something for them. I want to stress this was never about the common nonsense we call ‘accountability’, but rather out of pure joy. If someone you love or respect asks you for help, it is because they think you capable of whatever it is they require. There is no greater gift. Accountability on the other hand, is Negative Inspiration adjacent and part of the economy of shame. It can carry the weight of debt and the impending doom of falling short of someone else’s expectations. No thanks.
Not everyone is so fortunate to have a supportive network, so in it’s absence, here are a couple of strategies to help workaround ones self-doubt or inertia which, when combined with the Geometry of Discomfort absolutely guarantee becoming unstuck.
1. A proxy self
At times where I was unable to make myself do, or do for myself, I have fallen back on the idea of doing for someone else. This someone can be a friend, or even a character. Habitica is an app and web based RPG whereby you can gain gear and experience points (XP) for completing tasks for your wee person. Some would call this gamification, others accountability, but it’s actually us providing for an identity we are more comfortable with. Ensuring a wee character gets cool gear and doesn’t die by performing tasks in the real world can result in moving forward almost without actively thinking about it. Before you know it, you’re no longer opening the app to check things off, but find yourself with new engrained habits. Remind me to write more about identity sometime.
2. Time travelling to avoid sad, bad outcomes
Another method I employ is imagining the crushing sensation of common failure in the future if I did not prepare adequately for something I desperately wish to do. I travel to the future and conduct an AAR with myself to look for lessons learned and ways to better prepare. Once I land back in the present I have a gameplan. I then leverage the Geometry if Discomfort model to get the ball rolling.
Both or either of these methods might appear dumb, but these have been effective ways of circumventing the ingrained whatsthepointism drummed into me since I was single-digits old.
I’ve since managed more or less to escape the chains that held me through much of my life and these days when things go wrong I am often in a position to conduct an AAR and put everything in the lessons learned category rather than allowing common failure to shackle me once more.
- People in positions of authority can often starve us of our creativity and freeze us in place (if we let them). They should be roundly ignored as idiots
- The pain associated with common failure is invented by tyrants as part of an economy of shame
- Accountability is a negative driver I call Negative Inspiration – service to friends should be joyful because we were asked (and deemed capable) not because we are afraid to let them down (a debt: see above)
- Failure is a lack of fitness and fitness is the quality of being suitable to fulfil a particular role or task
- AARs can help us circumvent the tyrannical shame of common failure and create ways to adapt
- If stuck, proxying or time travelling can help us find a way to get started without feeling the pressure of impending common failure.
Being last is a starting point. It means we have stepped into an arena that we may not yet be ready for and every miss, every fall, every fumble, is an opportunity to learn and critically: adapt. Each of these experiences provides the building blocks for a more capable self, yet we can allow common failure to erode confidence and prevent us from thriving. For some of us, breaking the chains that hold us in place is the hardest thing of all and we may have to invent novel methods to get out of our own way, avoiding buying into the economy of shame created by negative drivers .
Finally, remember this: our failures are foundational bricks in the edifice of experiential growth. Without failure, there can never be triumph.