Dealing With Failure: Refine

Posted by Beetle B. on Tue 01 January 2019

Perhaps you went through all the links and think none of them will work for you.

That's fine. Find something that does. I personally doubt that all of the information is of no use to you. Pick the portions you think will benefit you, and do those. If you have any ideas of your own, add them to the mix.

A year from now, you can evaluate what worked for you and what didn't, and refine your method for the next year. I doubt any of the authors came up with their approach on their first attempt. They kept what worked for them and abandoned what didn't, and they experimented with new ideas.

Failure

Here's a secret: I'm not a goal oriented person. When I look at my life's achievements, I didn't plan to have those successes. If I had, I almost certainly would have given up. Instead, I focused on incremental gains, with some hope that at some point they'll get me somewhere.

In my freshman year as an engineer, I told my physics professor that I loved physics, but did not think I was cut out to become one. Real physics is hard. And the fancy tricks they have up their sleeves were magic that was beyond me. No, I'll stick to engineering.

I said the same to a math professor.

And I felt the same about programming. I loved programming, but when I'd see fancy algorithm tricks, I couldn't see how I got there.

So how did the future play out?

In my last year in undergrad, I decided to take upper level physics courses and had a blast. I changed my focus from electromagnetics to device physics. I eventually got a MS in physics.

In grad school, I started taking mathematics courses for fun. No goal in mind. By the time I left grad school, I was told I was one course away from a purely incidental MS. I never even tried to get one.

As for programming: I work as a software engineer, and don't shy away from any aspect of it.

How did I get there? By taking things one step at a time. Forget the seemingly impossible goal, and just asking myself "OK, given where I am now, what's the next thing?" without any consideration on whether I could become a software professional. I'll stop when I can't achieve any incremental gain.

Alex Vermeer, the author of the 8760 hours guide agrees with me:

Incremental progress - Focus on what you can do next to improve, not on how far you are from some ideal.

I'm not suggesting you forget goals altogether. In fact, in retrospect, my approach can coexist with being goal oriented. The key message is that failure is inevitable. We frame success and failure in very counterproductive ways. By definition, you are always failing until you succeed. You literally have to fail your way into success.

Instead of thinking that way, focus a bit more on processes. You may have a goal in mind, but what process/activity can you continually do that may get you there? Try to set up your activities and habits such that you'll gradually move in the direction you want to go.

Scott Adams once wrote a really nice piece about goals vs processes. He says:

This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.

Throughout my career I've had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That's literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal-if you reach it at all-feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

This article is part of the series on New Year's Resolutions.