What is dealing with losing like for people? I am not talking about dealing with rejection. When other people are involved – that’s different. Losing, failure. This kind of thing.
I think the practice of mindfulness has taught me something really valuable on this front: we shouldn’t be quick to judge. In reality, calling something a success or a failure is quite closed-minded. It was easy back in school and college: if you get an A you’ve won, anything else – you’ve lost. If you score a goal, you’ve won – and so on. It’s not that clear cut in academics and sport in the medium term, and it certainly isn’t clear cut in life – because its a long game. I won’t really know what was a success and what was a failure until I am on my deathbed.
Looking back, things that seemed like overwhelming successes in the past lead me down pathways I soon abandoned. Being the best at something, winning competitions – the conventional definition of success – often leads to a tree of really tough choices and pressure of other people’s expectations. Success brings it’s own set of challenges, hence it is difficult to sustain it.
On the other hand, what seemed like giving into my weaknesses turned out to be huge wins. Giving up on relationships – huge relationships that really mattered in my life – at the time it seemed like shameful quitting, like a black mark that I could never wash away – yet I am liberated by my choices everyday. Getting invested into other relationships without knowing where it is going, uncovering my vulnerabilities – that felt like it could only end it tears, but in reality it turned out to be the biggest gift. Career pivots felt like controlled failure. Nasty people judge you, and nice people pity you. Of course, knowing what you want makes it all irrelevant, but nobody likes to feel that lonely.
The other things that matters when thinking about fear of failure is what do we actually fear? Who is the toughest judge? The career pivots were experiences in my life when other people felt I was failing whereas I knew I wasn’t. That taught me something: I fear not trying more than I fear letting irrelevant people down. I think a lot of people worry about letting people they care about down: their family and significant others. We make this erroneous assumption that we can make other people happy without doing what’s right for ourselves in the long run.
Martyrdom is a hiding place. Hiding from judgement; hiding from the accountability that going after our dreams brings. It’s a way to blame others for not doing what’s really hard. The most ironic thing is that it will probably come as no surprise to the people we are trying to please that we’re not happy, but they will never even suspect the weight and severity that we assigned to their opinion. There’s nothing malicious in this. In fact, the harm is done by ourselves: assuming that the people who are meant to care about us simply won’t understand. There’s a way to present our troubles in a way that is open and vulnerable rather than an acid test. Chances are that the people who care will come around to see our reasons.
Mindfulness is the best way to uncover our assumptions, that’s why I love it so much. No amount of reading or soul-searching will help to understand what’s going on inside unless we practice. Reflection to mindfulness is like stretching is to exercise. They go incredibly well together, but let’s not skimp on our practice either.