Here's what failure looks like (and how to "fail" like a champ)

In October, I drove away from a stable job with benefits, close friends, and a town with immense natural beauty.

Why?

It wasn't the right situation or the right timing.

While we were excited to move to Alaska, we mostly wanted to regain momentum in our lives, which felt like they were stagnating. The purpose of driving across the country was first and foremost about uprooting where we were feeling stuck.

So as soon as I handed in my key for our apartment in Boulder and started the road trip to Alaska, we had essentially accomplished the main objective. Unstuck!

When you accomplish your primary objective before you even start the adventure, what does that mean?

We had the exciting and frightening prospect of following the direction in which life decided to lead us.

Realizing the need for a change

To my complete surprise, shaky housing situations and a less-than-ideal job resulted in a development I never would have expected.

I realized I wanted more autonomy, more freedom to work on my own projects, and the ability to support myself based on what I created.

I realized I wanted to work for myself.

The solo road trip through Canada had shown me what time that was entirely my own could be. I had three weeks in which I could decide all of the particulars--where my dog Fenton and I stopped along the road, how fast to drive, what to eat (lots of oatmeal) and where to sleep (lots of Canadian provincial campgrounds).

Then additional time alone in a new town, where I initially had a hard time making friends, meant that I had time to focus on my own interests again. Being underutilized at work meant I had extra brain power to devote to my own projects.

For someone who used to think the only course for me was the one most traveled, I had finally realized I wanted to bushwhack my own path.

Rigorous schooling and an upward progression through jobs: that's what I thought was in store for me.

But here I was, suddenly realizing I was turning my back on that.

Who knew--this straight-laced good girl was a rebel.

I certainly didn't.

What failure looks like

So where does that leave me?

A month ago, we packed up our belongings and saw our last glimpse of our Alaskan town as the ferry pulled away with us on it. Since then, we camped in cold and snowy Alaska and Canada, stayed with Peter's parents in Idaho and plan to stay with mine in Colorado. At the moment, I'm crashing with friends back in Boulder, about to take yoga teacher training.

We don't know where we're living and we don't know how we're going to make money.

To some people, many people, that looks like a failure. Like Alaska "didn't work out," that we're unemployed, that we're homeless.

That's partially true, but it's not the whole story.

Failure is really just a phase of experimentation. It's an important component, and one that's inevitable to make any forward progress.

Should I mention that despite the uncertainty, I'm actually really happy right now?

I'm taking the time to intentionally plan the next steps. I'm purposefully slowing down to listen to my intuition (which often gives better advice than my brain if I let it). I'm about to immerse myself back in my love of yoga. We're spending ample time with family and friends. I don't have to ask for time off to spend holidays with the people I care about (a practice that I've always found extremely backwards). I'm having deep, thoughtful conversations and writing, two activities that are high on my priority list.

Sure, the uncertainty is unnerving sometimes. So is the daunting prospect of figuring out how to support myself (and pay for dog kibble) when I have no idea what the hell I'm doing.

So, okay, maybe it looks like I'm failing.

But viewed from the other side, it still feels like it could be exponentially worse.

You know what failure really looks like to me?

Being so fearful of the uncertainty that you stay indefinitely in a situation that drains you.

And that is so much worse to me than facing the unknown.

How to fail well

If you're taking a hard look at your reasoning whenever you're faced with fear, you are training yourself to fail well.

Failing well is basically accelerating the cycle from thinking about trying something new to actually executing it and then either continuing if it goes well or starting a new activity if it goes poorly.

Fail faster by starting small

Instead of just endlessly deliberating whether you'd like to sing or live in Norway or go to grad school or do whatever, complete one small action related to that inquiry.

Sign up for singing lessons. Visit Norway, or at least start saving up for a visit. Talk to a professor in the field and program you'd like to study.

Just start, and then do a little bit at a time to get a greater understanding of what committing to the activity would entail.

You can't know until you know.

You can think all you want, but without eventual action, it won't mean anything of consequence.

Course correct

What if you realize that you hate singing or the lack of sunlight in Norway makes you depressed or your intended field of study looks boring?

This is important: stop doing the same thing you are doing.

Once you've given the activity a fair shake, it's time to move on.

You did it! You failed! Good for you.

Because otherwise you'd still be on your couch wondering if you'd like to use your voice on stage or dreaming about eating Smørbrød or assuming that you'll study agricultural ecology. And you could keep wondering because you still wouldn't know.

Look for the lessons

Each time you have an experience that doesn't work out at expected, you gain valuable insight into your own character and what direction to try next.

You can assume all you want how a situation will be and how you will react in it, but it doesn't matter one bit unless you actually try it for yourself.

Now your newfound knowledge can inform the next steps.

If one aspect of the experiment went poorly, how you can accomplish the same thing from a different angle? If the whole experience seems like a bust, what new insight do you want to build on by starting something new?

Say thank you

Sometimes it takes time to gain perspective before you can accomplish this step, but cultivating this practice is the key to fast failure. The sooner you acknowledge gratitude for the opportunity to learn, the faster you will bounce back.

Being thankful for the opportunity to experiment will minimize the stigma of failure. It will make it easier to get started on the next cycle of trying and possibly failing. It will also allow you to accurately look back on how far you've come once you achieve what feels like success.

I understand that failing quickly (and even getting started) is all easier said than done. Experiments are time consuming. But they are the only way that we can narrow down our wants and needs in a tangible sense.

I wish we could just sit around thinking of what the leap will look like and have an accurate idea, but that's never the case.

So get out there and try, fail, and fail faster so you can try again.

It's the reason we're here. The more often we do it, the sooner we discover what truly lights us up and where we want to spend our time and energy.

My questions for you today: have you had a recent failure? Or are you in a situation where you're starting to realize you need to take action, despite the risk of failing?

Iris Rankin

Soulful questioner, exuberant organizer, here to find the balance between discipline and delicious relaxation. Iris Rankin is the founder of Project Intention, a values-based community focused on living day-to-day with purpose, planning, and heart. Iris encourages women to adopt the self care practices that make them feel divine, the planning tools to hone in on their essential wants and needs, and the emotional resilience to express their most authentic selves.



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