You will fail; Congratulations! Thoughts on Motivation and Mastery

You will fail; Congratulations! Thoughts on Motivation and Mastery

September 18, 2023

When challenging yourself, you will experience failures. To those able to heed its lessons, failure is an exacting but prodigious teacher; its lessons bring us farther along ours paths to mastery. So when you challenge yourself and fail, congratulations on the lesson!

A healthy attitude towards failure unlocks the upper bounds of achievement.

For me, and I imagine I'm not at all unique in this, it isn't usually helpful to try to convince myself that I won't fail at an endeavor when facing down growth discomfort because that just doesn't gel with reality. Even with preparation, some lessons just have to be learned through trial and error. Rather, it is more reassuring to remember that yes, I will likely make an abundance of mistakes - and that's just how growth works! That reframing helps me to shift my focus away from avoiding mistakes all together (which can be achieved by simply not trying), focusing instead on making sure that they aren’t catastrophic when they do occur (through preparation) and that I learn as much as I can from them (through retrospection).

In other words, accepting the inevitability of mistakes, a form of failure, helps to build the courage to make the right mistakes necessary to achieve challenging goals.

I'll share two quotes that have resonated with me in moments when I've needed to summon the courage to take on or face challenges. Despite being uttered centuries apart - one being from a contemporary science fiction novel, the other from a historic military leader - there is a kernel of insight that connects them.

The first is,

"Life is like walking along a long road shouldering a heavy load; there is no need to hurry. One who treats difficulties as the normal state of affairs will never be discontented. Patience is the source of eternal peace; treat anger as an enemy. Harm will befall one who knows only success and has never experienced failure. Blame yourself rather than others. It is better not to reach than to go too far."

Testament of Ieyasu, 1604

And the other, which resonates with management or having responsibility for others but applies to individual endeavors as well, is

You will fail. And when you do, you must do everything you can to fail as little as possible. Don’t let the failure get it’s teeth into you. You’ll make decisions that come with a cost. That is Command. Do not let the cost consume you "

Child of Memory, Adrian Tchaikovsky, 2023

The kernels that connect these two thoughts are, “One who treats difficulties as the normal state of affairs will never be discontented” and, “You will fail…Don’t let the failure get it’s teeth into you.”

This resonates with precepts that I ruminated on to cope with personal and professional challenges – especially during the pandemic, which was a period fraught with grief and uncertainty.

Focus less on what I am not; focus instead on becoming. Focus less on becoming; focus instead on being. Focus on forming useful habits rather than sustaining motivation. Everyone is a potential teacher.

Focus less on what I am not; focus instead on becoming.

Rather than beating yourself up about not having realized some perceived potential, which doesn't by itself change anything, think about who it is that you want or need to become. From there, chart a course and focus on feasible, ideally consistently sustainable steps.

Focus less on becoming; focus instead on being.

Rather than only focusing on what steps you have yet to take (which is Sisyphean and therefore less gratifying way to approach life), allow yourself to appreciate the strides already taken. Thank my past self for sacrificing and putting in the work to get here. My future self has even greater progress to look forward to if I stay the course.

Focus on forming useful habits rather than sustaining motivation.

Motivation gets you started but it is habit that keeps you going when motivation wanes.

The book Good Habit, Bad Habit: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood is a great read on the topic. A key takeaway for me has been that habits are formed when one combines context, cues, and persistence. What makes habit formation powerful is that the results are compounding. Adding automacy to your effective behaviors and removing it from your unproductive behaviors, over the course of years,

My writing practice serves as an anecdotal example. When I have an intruding thought, impactful conversation, or overcome a new challenge (the cue), and I’m near a writing surface, be it an app, notebook, or scrap of paper (the context), I jot down the thought. That is stacked with another habit that when I have decompression time, e.g. I’m not working and I’m the only one in the room (the context), I collate those loose notes and decide which are worth fleshing out and/or continue iterating on previous notes. I’ve persisted in doing this for a few years now, which has formed this blog, including this post.

In practice, being mindful of how habit formation works encourages seeking ways to control the context tied to cues.

For instance, I look for ways to reinforce the persistence of my writing habit by reducing friction to writing. Since I’ve observed that I’m less likely to write if I’m using an app with a long startup time, I’ve distributed pens and paper around my home and will use the fastest note taking app if no paper is handy. As a meta-ancedote, this section on habits as well as the conclusion were initially captured on the back of an envelope.

When building habits, consistency trumps intensity.

Each time we show up, we reinforce to our minds and bodies the notion that, “this is a thing we do, this is a time and place where we do it.” The fewer exceptions made, the better. On the other hand, too much intensity may impede ability to show up at steady intervals – cause you can't show up if you’re haggard or injured. Build up a foundation that enables increasing intensity without exponentially increasing risk.

Mastery rewards volume of completion over perfection.

Repeatedly completing projects gains you more experience than shipping a “perfect” project once. The more projects that you take from start to finish, the more challenges you encounter and surmount, the more modes of failure you encounter and learn to resolve or preempt.

An example is writing this blog. The distance from thought to loose note is relatively short. From loose note to first draft is an unintimidating distance – it’s easy enough put together and outline. But the proximity between a rough draft and a publicly published post can feel cavernous. The minimum level of clarity and correctness is just that much higher once you start engaging with others. And it is precisely because of that higher threshold of fidelity that publishing a post challenges and therefore grows my thinking and writing skills more than accumulating drafts alone.

Going through the end-to-end process of thought → note → drafts 🔁 → published forces me to make decisions such as to either complete or cut incomplete points, think about the intended audience and therefore what concepts are safe to assume are common knowledge, and so on. All of which I could defer indefinitely if I didn’t set a goal to put a final draft out into the world. The reward for achieving that goal is that I learn about myself, better organize and communicate my thoughts, share knowledge and perspective, and engage in enriching discussions with readers.

Related reads

Everyone is a potential teacher

When you look at every situation as an opportunity to learn, and everyone is a potential teacher, you’ll find a near constant source of learning.

They need not have set out to teach you anything.

You need not agree with what they set out to teach.

You need not like them or be like them to learn from them.

Re: They need not have set out to teach you anything.

An example for me is working with dogs, especially my first dog as an adult, Yoki. A few of the things I learned from her:

  • Reinforcing what works is far more effective than punishing what doesn't. Therefore, effective leaders create conditions that encourage desired behaviors then recognize and reward those behaviors. The goal is to make it easy to do the right things, harder to do the wrong ones.
    • For instance, if something is valuable, keep it out of reach. If it ends up within reach, encourage a more appropriate behavior than destruction. So if I leave food on the coffee table and the dog eats it, that’s on me. Step one is don’t leave food on the table. Step 2 is work on impulse control and boundaries with the the dog consistently.
  • Preventing frustration is better than reacting to frustration
    • For instance, I have way less patience when I’m hungry. So grabbing a banana before heading out for a walk or training session can make the whole experience more pleasant for all. Frustration has a way of cascading, so preventing a little may actually prevent a lot.
    • The takeaway here is that while they don't come with curriculums and rubrics, I've learned a great deal from dogs. Learning to work with them has revealed generalizable learnings about working with people. Particularly that you get more out of people when you meet them where they are instead of where you think they ought to be.

Re: You need not like them or be like them to learn from them.

Competitors and adversaries are good at teaching us about ourselves. We may learn about our own assumptions, values, and biases through being exposed to dissimilar perspectives with their own sets of assumptions, values, and biases. This is often an unpleasant experience. The less pleasant it is, the more important it is to reap the lessons from the experience.

Speaking of learning from everyone, credit for the cover photo goes to my collauge Gabe H. I quipped the line, “keep the motivation, let go of the pressure”, in one of the many enriching convos I’ve had with Gabe. The reason I’ve retaining for so long (since 2020?) is that he wrote down it on a sticky note!

Wrap Up

I’ve come to believe that, in the presence of opportunity, the primary pillar connected to achieving one’s potential is a healthy mindset. Wisdom – defined as “applied knowledge” – and experience are the other pillars. Mindset takes primacy over the other pillars because one needs the courage or bravery offered by constructive perspectives in order to recognize and pursue opportunities, a prerequisite for gaining experience and applying wisdom.

Embracing failure isn't about being cavalier or reckless. Rather, it is about overcoming the mental hurdles that may hold one back from pursuing opportunities and maximizing potential. It is about rebuffing the internal voice that says, “you can't”, replying with “…yet; let’s work on changing that (if it’s even true)”. It’s about overcoming inertia to take the first step, knowing that taking that first step (or 10th or 1000th) might involve tripping, getting back up, and trying again. Catalyzed by building habits that are resilient to the ebbs and flows of motivation, embracing failure as a fundamental component of growth is about cultivating a mindset of resilience.

In conclusion,

Keep the motivation, let go of the pressure.

Happy striving.