Notice the difference between what happens when a person says to themself, I have failed three times, and what happens when they say, I am a failure.
There are times when we all need a little pick me up. When we lose momentum and get caught up bemoaning the past.
It’s challenging not to get caught up in an endless cycle of doubt, regret and self-recrimination. If we want to get stuff done, we have to silence those internal voices and find strategies for viewing the past constructively so we can move ahead enthusiastically.
I have had my disappointments. I know failure and I know mistakes. I have profound regrets and wonder about paths not taken. These feelings are very painful and paralyzing.
I also know that ruminating on past failures or times I have been wronged is not productive. I also know that trying to ignore these feelings and bury them is not effective and will ultimately backfire.
The Art of Letting Go
What I have been seeking is a better way to view the things that go wrong.
Getting some emotional distance is needed in order to analyze events and learn from them. Instead of blaming others and holding grudges and rehearsing revenge fantasies, we can learn from our past mistakes, failures and hurts and become wiser in our decisions, more measured in our choices, and hopefully impart some hard earned lessons to others.
I have been thinking about this lately. Thinking about how to develop a better lens through which to view past events that still hold some sting so I can extract value from them and let them go. This is part of the art of letting go.
Let me share a strategy I have come up with to reframe the past in a healthy way. I start by taking a process metric from digital marketing and applying it to interpreting the vicissitudes of life and fate.
Attribution is a term that has gained prominence in digital marketing as a performance metric to gauge the effectiveness of ads and content in a sales funnel.
Attribution in digital marketing is giving appropriate credit to the sources that ultimately bring a prospect to your paywall and convince them to convert into paying customers.
Attribution is a measure of the value of the touchpoints along the customer journey and how much weight to give to each in the sales funnel.
Each step contributes to the ultimate goal.
In life the goals are based on the pursuit of happiness: to be content, successful, to not suck so much.
Each step along the path contributes to this goal and can be viewed as having an attribution component. You may not have liked being kicked around and miserable but in most instances, you can trace your response to those events to where you are now and what you learned to avoid and what you decided to pursue.
This is crucial.
What is to give light must first endure burning.
Events that look only like something bad befell you and as something to dismiss or forget, lead to better things. Some credit, or attribution, should be given to them.
In the antique practice of alchemy, fire is considered a purification process.
That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.
When one door closes, another opens.
Alexander Graham Bell
These seemingly trite bromides indicate the attribution. And when we begin to acknowledge the value, we can begin to look past the hurt and dig for the lessons.
There is a dream custom among tribes in New Guinea that when you find yourself in a nightmare being harassed by some figure, you must confront the specter and ask what is the gift you have for me. This is a very powerful way to address our fears. It can also be applied in our waking lives when confronting our past. What is the gift?
This change of attitude can also help us move forward fearless of failure.
Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM said,
If you want to increase your success rate double your failures
That is great advice about moving forward and not being timid about whether something will fail. Watson got that right. He was a legendary success. But he didn’t get everything right. He originally estimated the worldwide demand for computers to be five. He was busy making and selling adding machines at the time and dismissed and grossly underestimated the market that would ultimately make his company a household name. You don’t have to get it all right.
Attributing value to past failures and mishaps can be much more fruitful going forward than just trying to muscle through legitimately painful emotions with delusions of false agency, like trying to tell yourself: I did it my way.
It’s no accident that guys belt out that Sinatra song when they’re loaded. The boozing and the song are both aspects of self-delusion. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, address your disappointment with respect and find what it has to teach.
The attribution model is an antidote for when you have your Gethsemane moments of self doubt and think the past is predictor of the future. It is not. Only hard work makes it happen. And we can only do hard work when we believe it can have an impact and that change is possible. There is no indication of future success in most situations. Its just the natural outcome of performing day in and day out.
We all look like caterpillars until we become butterflies.
Steve Jobs said, You can only connect the dots in retrospect. Things that seem disparate and unconnected show themselves as steps on a path as we look back over the arc of our lives. Remain confident that it all will be revealed and take the advice your happiest 80-year-old self would give you.
Steve Jobs had his disappointments. He lost the company he founded. He was kicked out. His early failure must have been painful but it allowed him to get humble and introspective and do the work that made his legacy.
When we read about successful people and their early struggles we tend to discount them because we know how the story turns out. But to them in the moment it must have been painful and full of self-doubt; Gethsemane moments.
Sometimes missing early success can be the best thing that happens to us. The obstacle is the way.
You can’t do the deep work when everybody is telling you what a genius you are, because you start to believe it. Think of how many crappy second albums there are. They call it sophomore slump. The artist gets caught up in their hype and they abandon the mindset that checked their excesses and end up producing mediocre junk.
Look at Bob Dylan and his sequestering himself at the height of his fame. What a courageous and honest act. He tuned out the noise of adulation. Look at the longevity and vitality of his career. He won the Nobel Prize and it is well deserved. And he didn’t even cater to that honor. He doesn’t lose his focus and he isn’t seduced by the hype. That is role model material.
So when something doesn’t go the way you hoped or planned, get excited and look for the gift and start searching for the better path. We can define what we want, and what we want to be, by a better understanding of what we don’t want. This is called Via Negativa.
These ideas are meant to help us cultivate an attitude of embracing life and loving our fate; what the ancients called Amor Fati.
Another technique is to mythologize your journey. Think of it as an adventure novel. As Kurt Vonnegut said we all love the story of a guy gets into a hole, guy gets out of it. It ain’t over ’til its over so use your creativity and efforts to get out of any hole. Check out Vonnegut on the shape of stories.
I’m really interested in what you think of these ideas and if you find them helpful. Thanks!
“Belief in oneself is incredibly infectious. It generates momentum, the collective force of which far outweighs any kernel of self-doubt that may creep in.”
— Aimee Mullins