Monday, November 10, 2014

Failure Is An Option

When I was a child, I learned that I should do something right the first time or not at all. Except, not at all was generally not an option. Being prone to childish foolery, I often did not do the greatest job and I would soon learn the lesson that it would have been worth my while to do a better job the first time around. One example that comes to mind is stacking firewood. If I haphazardly threw the logs in a pile, it either resulted in falling over which caused me to undo and redo all the work I had done, or else I would be reprimanded for doing a shoddy job and being told to redo it. Either way, it was the same net effect.

For the most part, this is a good lesson. You ought to put effort into what you do and do not knowingly take shoddy shortcuts. What is strange, then, is that I have so much fear in doing something the right way. I take shortcuts whenever I think they are plausible and nearly nine times out of ten they are not. For example, I cannot count how many times I've tried to use my pocket knife as a screw driver to no avail rather than simply walking the few feet and getting a real screwdriver to begin with. And yet, if I have the cognitive powers to recognize the future futility of said shortcuts, I will often be left depressed before I even try. I know the knife will not unscrew this battery compartment and the batteries are so far away anyway, with the screw driver being in a different room it just seems utterly useless to even replace these dumb remote batteries. This has the advantage of being great at developing optimal software algorithms or unique solutions like finding a universal remote app on my phone, but I often freeze with analysis paralysis and do nothing at all. But why? Is it really that hard?

I find that I am often work-adverse today. It is not that I am particularly lazy or that I do not appreciate the rewards of a job well done. I simply have this foreboding feeling within me whenever I feel the requirement to do some kind of task no matter how small and especially if I do not know how to accomplish it perfectly the first time around. Stacking firewood might be the least of my worries today, except in cases where I have to devise where and how the stack should be placed and preserved. Pondering the options causes my brain to swim in fear of doing it wrong or sub-optimally and it causes insurmountable stress from not knowing what I do not know and thus lacking the ability to even research the proper technique. Couple this with various opinions and a variety of quality-to-cost potentials, when I finally get down to research I quickly become a wreck.

What is going on here? In short, I believe I must suffer from a fear of failure with a twist of negative emotions tied to menial tasks. My brain is so wired that small tasks are correlated with bad feelings, success is happy and golden, and failure is not only a failure to perform, but a failure of who I am as a person. I can only imagine that this wiring occurred from childhood where orders were shouted out to clean my room, finish the dishes, pick up my clothes and so on, and failures to perform properly the first time were met with indignation and lack of acceptance. My goal is not to push blame on any one person as my parents were the products of their parents and likewise my kids are becoming the product of myself. Hopefully by recognizing this weakness, I can break the trend and prevent the same miswiring of the brain in my own children. As little as I remember of my childhood, I recall a lot of frustration at my behaviors and little encouragement. This, I presume, caused me to hate myself for failure and strive only for success. If success seemed out of reach, too difficult, or riddled with confusion, I would fear doing it. Questioning and not understanding the responses to my questions often resulted in being yelled at with visible demonstration of frustration with me and my failures that it was often not worth the effort to ask.

But what is one to do with this knowledge? My lower-level thinking is already corrupt and this corruption causes me to corrupt others as well--even those I love the most. My failures are immediately equated with who I am and I have a hard time disassociated them. My kids failures are a lot like my own failures which further confounds the issue. I feel the stress of my own failure that I then lash out and teach them to behave in the same manner and solidify the same wiring mess in their brains. It is a downward spiral of self-abasement and fear that threatens to carry on for generations.

While there is clearly a problem with purposeful intent to do a poor job with full knowledge that you are doing it wrong, there should be no fear of simple misguided failure. Not knowing how to do something should not be riddled with fear and doubt. And yet, even in the workplace, there can be a significant stigma to asking questions and not knowing something. Likely, such people grew up in similar militaristic styles of "failure is not an option." But failure is an option and it is a viable option that says nothing about the individual. We all fail in many ways and it does not define us personally as a failure but rather as one who tries. And this is a good thing! The more we fail, the more we at least know we are trying.

I, like many people who suffer in this way, need to learn to accept failure as an outcome that is not negative and perhaps even positive depending on the circumstances. Still, while this is a good exercise for the high order of thinking, I am not yet entirely sure what to do with those low-level feelings of dread. Being asked to do the dishes overwhelms my senses with frustration, anger, dread, and who knows what else. I cannot remember enough of my childhood to remember what the links are in my brain, but I know they need to go. I am sure that recognition of the problem is the first step like so many other problems in the world, but what does one do with that?

A significant difficulty with this disease of sorts, is that it makes it difficult to speculate on different options of treatment. Pondering all the potentials arouses that very fear of the unknown and the surety of failure rendering any considerations nearly counterproductive. The first solution that comes to mind is meditation. Perhaps I need to meditate about doing dishes simultaneously with something I enjoy. Immediately, my brain floods with questions and concerns regarding the proper method of meditation, what I would think about, which things are more useful to ponder than others, how long I would meditate, maybe there is a better option, meditation makes me feel stupid and therefore might make matters even worse, and so on and so forth. With this ailment, it almost necessitates that someone else who knows better simply tells me what to do. I would have to implicitly trust such a person without suspecting they are a boob that cares only for their paycheck by following some checklist that undoubtedly will not work on someone as uniquely unqualified as myself. A difficult problem to be sure.

While it may be challenging to correct my own brain, hopefully I can at least work harder on protecting the brains of my children. Of course, it is still difficult to know the right way to go about it which again brings up all the fears and feelings of failure even in that regard. It is a difficult mess and a Catch 22 to be sure, but perhaps making them ever-so-slightly less neurotic than me is a win. As a first step, I think it is simply important to recognize that failure is indeed an option both for me and for others. Second, I ought to recognize that my feelings of dread are not legitimate nor useful and are probably best given a stern talking-to by my conscious voice. Or perhaps a softly-spoken talking-to. Or a compassionate and understanding talking-to. Well, shoot, who knows. I guess I have time to try them all and see where they get me. So long as I remember that failure is an option, I will just have to keep trying to see what rewires my brain. It feels like such a daunting task already that I feel like retreating and taking a nap even now.

I write all this not particularly for demonstrating my failure as a human being which is, of course, how my brain is predisposed to conclude, but rather to enlighten others regarding this type of brain failure along with providing insight into the cause. If there are others who feel this way, I hope this can be some encouragement that they are not failures for these things alone. There are probably many reasons as to why they are failures. I mean, wait, no, that did not come out right. In short, if more people are aware of this common brain malfunction, then more people can support those who suffer from it. And for those who are afflicted, hopefully they might find consolation in knowing they are not alone and find encouragement to fail with pride as it means they tried. Whoa, that is good. I am going to use that...

"Fail with pride as it means you've tried."

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