The process is part of failure.

If you’re a self-driven person, you might be like me and beat yourself up every time you fail at anything. I fail often, and when I fail I can get really mad at myself. On days where I fail at everything from getting anything done at work to losing at video games to even forgetting to eat, it’s a fun spiral.

If this doesn’t make any sense to you the best way I can explain the underlying state that leads to this is to quote Hannah on Girls:

No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself. OK? So any mean thing that someone’s gonna think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour. [0]

Feeling like you failed sucks, and being negative about yourself even before you failed makes it suck more. But, having failed means you actually tried to do something, and for me that itself is rare. It’s something that should be internally acknowledged and congratulated.

I hate the feeling of regret. I’m a very emotional person and the intense feeling of regret is not something I like to feel. Failure and regret are a common pair, but I do not believe that you can regret a failure you can learn from. It’s something I say to myself a lot. If you say it enough it becomes an internal assumption, and those are hard to knock down. It’s all a game of min-maxing the emotions you do and don’t want to feel.

It’s not a fully logical thing, since we’re human, but I find that going through the following thought process at the very least gives me time to think and acknowledge the specific failure rather than sit and ponder on how awful I am at everything.

After the rush from the initial cacophony of emotions I feel when I become aware I’m failing at something, I try to rationally think on the set of assumptions / decisions I made that led to doing what I did, which ultimately led to failure and the imminent possibility of regret. It’s important to try to think of as wide of a set as I can, not just anything I did immediately prior to the decision. I then gather all of these and treat them one by one as a function, in the mathematical sense.

Shit probably just took a weird turn, so let’s back-up:

A function is a relation between a set of inputs and a set of permissible outputs with the property that each input is related to exactly one output. [1]

The inputs here are all the other related assumptions I had, the information I had, the information I reasonably could’ve had but didn’t, anything that contributed to the specific action or assumption that ultimately led to failure.

Each of these inputs lead to exactly one output, the best possible decision I could’ve made at the time. If enough of the inputs lead to the same decision, then we’re golden.

This doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the abstract to me, so let’s try a simple example. I’ll try to be explicit about the connections to the mathematical function. I’ll be going in the form of:

Failure
  • A specific assumption held / decision made [output of that function]
    • A prior action made that led to real output instead of “best possible” output [input]
    • An implicit or explicit prior assumption, instead of direct action [input]

For each of these specific possible contributing factors, the goal is to compare the now known best possible output and the actual output that occurred at the time.

I am 15 minutes late to my first meeting of the day.
  • Was the time that I got out of bed and started my daily morning routine early enough? Did I simply oversleep?
    • Was my alarm set to a reasonable time?
    • Did I hear my alarm or did I ignore it?
    • Did I stay up the previous night?
  • Did I change anything in my daily routine?
    • Was the order of actions (showering, brushing teeth, etc) the same as recent days, or my default?
    • Did any of the actions take longer than usual? Did I use a new multi-step beard wash, or anything else new?
  • How long did it take to get to work?
    • Was it longer than any other recent day?
  • Did I assume a long enough time between arriving at the general destination (office, conference room, etc) and my specific meeting?
    • Did I use a conference room that I knew (or could’ve known if I asked) is notorious for having teleconferencing issues? It takes a long time to write “krahjerdi” into one of those Chrome for Work boxes, it’s a tiny keyboard on a remote.
    • Was it an in-person meeting in a new building? Did I leave enough time to find the actual meeting room?

There could be a lot more of these, and they vary greatly from person to person and situation to situation, but the more you do this the better you get at doing it. It’s a game of spotting what my favorite High School Math/Stats teacher called “lurking variables” in the wild.

If when going through these questions I can’t find anything where I reasonably can say “oh come on, I knew I shouldn’t have done that”, I can logically feel guilt-free.

The examples above only list purely-me questions, since I’m self-driven and focus on failures that are 100% mine, with workplace failures these questions end up being closer to:

  • Did I have any concerns, and did I make myself heard?
  • Did I have the authority to do something different?
  • In going through this loopback system, are there any common contributing factors in this failure that existed in other ones inside the team/division/company? Have I made these findings heard?

Incorporating logic and awareness into my emotions is really important for me.

I used to be really good at ignoring myself and acting like negative feelings didn’t affect me, then maybe if I was lucky at the end of the day I would think “FUCK I have been angry all day, what’s going on?!”

I find that if a failure is something I can reasonably suppress the negative emotions around, I can screw something up publicly then smile and laugh about it 30s later, which is a great feeling! It’s nice to fail then be able to laugh about it knowing you’ll use it as a chance to learn and grow.

The faster I can get at detecting and validating negative feelings, the better I can get at feeling the feelings. Then I can finally focus on the actual lesson to be learned, which helps me grow.