How to turn failure into growth and happiness

Advice for my 20 year old self: Struggle and fail

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Magnolia Bluff, 2018

It’s Friday night. Would you rather spend the next five hours with friends drinking Manhattans at a bar or with a toddler in an ER with an earache? I would choose, oddly enough, the later. Don’t get me wrong, the former is fun, but it’s also a memory of my 20s that I’m more than happy never to return to.

When I posted What would you tell your 20-year-old self? a colleague asked me what I would say. I can’t remember what I said at the time, but know what I would tell myself now – fail. And learn to get good at it.

I came to realize this advice after the last 3 books I’ve read, Love Warrior, Principles, and The Happiness Project, all share a common thread that made an impact on me. In some way they all talk about how struggle, self awareness, and learning creates growth. And growth is where we derive happiness, whether it’s from growing a relationship, our understanding of the world, ourselves, our bodies, or our minds.

Failure is also one of the main things that can accelerate the struggle, learn, growth process. In Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle shares how she used struggle as a springboard to a truer identity and better life. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin talks about how it’s not the goal, but the process of striving after that goal in your everyday life that brings happiness. In Principles, Ray Dalio shares how learning from his mistakes is one of the key principles that has helped him become so successful in work and life.

I would tell my 20-year-old self to get comfortable with failure, because it’s going to happen a lot and is an incredible learning opportunity if you open yourself up to it. I would tell her that failure will help you find yourself, and while you probably don’t even really know what finding your own voice means, it will help you learn what you’re good at, what you need to work on, and what you truly care about.

“I learned that there is an incredible beauty to mistakes, because embedded in each mistake is a puzzle, and a gem that I could get if I solved it, i.e. a principle that I could use to reduce my mistakes in the future.”
– Ray Dalio, Principles

The benefits of failure is not a new concept, but I never thought try and get good at struggling and failure. Ten years ago I don’t think I had the emotional intelligence to tackle big questions like why I am on this earth, but I could have practiced failing and getting comfortable with critical feedback, and how to turn that into a positive experience instead of a negative one. Today, being able to process failure, see positive sides to a struggle, and increasing self-awareness has helped me tackle those bigger questions, like what my personal guiding principles are.

It’s painful to struggle and embarrassing and deflating to fail. But I’ve found this is usually because I make it so. I’m the one who is uncomfortable, worried, and stressed out. Anyone else, usually a good friend, wouldn’t think it’s as big of a deal as I do. It’s hard to proactively not freak out and be negative when something painful happens, and I’m by no means great at it. How to learn from failure is different for every single person, but here are 3 things I am trying to work on for growth:

  1. Staying Positive: This helps me stay out of my own head when I start a downward negative spiral and is a reminder to look at things from the 10,000 foot view. I also make better decisions and am more open to learning when I’m not upset (or hangry for that matter). My initial reaction to failure and struggling is usually an emotional one, and staying positive helps me think with a clear head until enough time has passed to make a more logical decision.

  2. Documenting Everything: I’ve started to document weekly failures and learnings in Evernote so I don’t forget what I have learned. Between work and life I feel like I have a horrible memory, and this ensures I capture insights big and small for reference later.

  3. Seeking Inspiration: Right now the top ways I work through issues is through relationships or reflection. There are people in my life who help me process information better, such as a friend or mentor. Audiobooks and working out are another way I set time aside to reflect, which usually provides inspiration and ideas to think about things in a different way. I hear great things about meditation, but haven’t tested that one out yet.

The 3 books I mentioned earlier are all great reads for additional tips into the how to struggle well, especially Ray Dalio’s Principles.

I remember listening to a Top 10 Harvard Business Review article where the author said the sooner you figure out the reason you are on this earth, the sooner you can align your life to that, and the sooner you’ll be happy. I’ve realized that while I have a lot of reflection and figuring out to do (it may take my whole lifetime to figure out what I’m doing here), in the meantime I can soak it all up and remember that every struggle actually makes me happier in the end.

“Happiness is a how not a what.
A talent, not an object.”
– Hermann Hesse

I’d prefer to be in that ER on a Friday night, not only because a little redhead is counting on me, but because I wouldn’t exchange a night out for the comfort of better self-awareness or the confidence to fail that has come along with this period in my life. I know I don’t have 1/100th of anything in life figured out, but facing failure and struggle head on is a start.

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