What do you do when faced with an unexpected obstacle? When the challenge becomes uncomfortable, when you begin to fear that you've bit off more than you can chew?
In some ways this article is a continuation of my December article about failure, but today my focus is on resisting failure, on side stepping it, on pretending it's not there and pushing through until you've found your success. I think this is as important a skill to master as bouncing back after failure because I think that it's tempting to believe that success will be flawless and obvious, that forward motion will be smooth and even, that accomplishments will be whole and perfect. I think more often the process of success feels like drowning, and the great accomplishments of your life feel like crawling onto the sand panting and shaking, still beaten by waves. But undeniably on the other side of the strait and perhaps alive in a way you've never been before.
I just finished building a house. It is perfect: beautiful and well-built, incredibly energy efficient, and it suits my life and aesthetic flawlessly. When people hear about this they often tell me how impressive I am for taking on such a huge project with success. Looking at the final result I understand why they feel this way (and of course, I couldn't agree more!), but in all honesty I squirm a little while they're talking.
The real experience of building the house was nothing like the shining star of achievement people see from the outside. It did take an enormous amount of skill to manifest in life what I saw in my mind; the success is a real one. The part that makes me uncomfortable is that in truth the process was grueling, exhausting, and bitterly disappointing. There were countless (seriously, countless) opportunities for financial failure and emotional ruin. The process scared me, and felt out of control at many points. I never once felt like a hero (well, maybe when the slate floor in the bathroom came out perfectly, maybe then); mostly I just felt desperate to hopscotch over calamity. And in the end there wasn't a moment of thunderous applause or a triumphal parade, there was just that crawling to shore with sand in my mouth and salt in my eyes.
So what lesson do I draw from the gap between how the process felt and how the outcome looks? I believe there are two: first, that using everything you've got doesn't feel good; and second, that it isn't over until you choose to walk away.
When faced with one insurmountable obstacle after another after another after another, each is presenting a choice. You can walk at any time from almost any situation you are in - job, apartment, relationship - or you can choose to find another way to operate within that system or another way to think about that dynamic or another way to approach that person that opens up new opportunities. No matter what kind of mess comes your way, as long as you can reimagine your experience in meaningful ways you're still in the game. It may not be smooth or easy, but it's not over either.
Now I'm not arguing that you should stick with every situation and eventually wrestle a win from it. Sometimes knowing when it's time to walk is the win. Some relationships are best ended, some apartments are untenable, some jobs will never fulfill you and in these situations walking away is how you assert your strength and claim success. But in reality those situations present the same challenge - it may be that sticking with what you have, no matter how difficult it is, is safer than trying something new. What I'm advocating for is that you find your truest goals and then push yourself to take the risk of reaching for what you really want, while knowing full well that if you miss you'll fall flat on your face.
I think that because there's the expectation that success is easy and failure is death, people shy away from taking risks where the outcome is unknown, or stretching themselves beyond their safe comfort zone. My belief is that you'll never find your limits without overshooting them a few times, and that if you go into a challenge fully expecting to be challenged (duh!) you may find greater inner reserves of strength and resilience that allow you to choose to try again, try harder, try another approach.
The process of achieving your goals doesn't necessarily feel good, and will present you with constant opportunities to give up. Don't be surprised by either of those experiences! But also don't forget that you have within you vast resources: you are capable, creative, resilient, determined, fiercely smart and utterly relentless. You can be brilliantly and wildly successful, you just need to remember the grit and strength that got you where you are (you know it hasn't been a cakewalk so far). And never be afraid of trying and failing, of being embarrassed, of disappointing people. If there's something you want out there, give yourself permission to really try hard, get messy, fall on your face and get up to try again. It's not the easy successes that awaken you to your deep strength and endless creativity, it's the ones you have to fight for that will prove to you how much you're capable of accomplishing.