How to Turn Failure into Success

1339521_38971392I spent at least half my childhood drawing. By the time I got to college and signed up for my first drawing class, I was pretty comfortable with a pencil. My teacher was a brilliant draftsman named Will Reimann. To impress him, I fired up all my best tricks: lots of varied lines, fade-outs, soft gradients. One day while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a mechanical drafting pen.

“Use that from now on,” said Mr. Reimann. And he smiled the smile of a man who has hatched an evil plot.

Oh, how I hated that damn pen! It drew a stark black line of unvarying thickness, making all my faboo pencil techniques impossible. You’d think my teacher would’ve been helpful, or at least forgiving. But no. He’d glance at my awkward ink drawings, groan “Oh, God,” and walk away holding his head in his hands, like a migraine sufferer. My art grade plummeted. I writhed with frustration. A few weeks later, as I sat in another class taking notes with the Loathsome Pen of Doom, something happened. Without my intention, my hand started dancing with that horrible pen. Together, they began making odd marks: hatches, overlapping circles, patches of stippling.

The next drawing I completed won a juried art show. “How did you figure out a drafting pen could do this?” one of the judges asked me.

“I failed,” I told them. “Over and over again.”

Since then I’ve had many occasions to celebrate failure, in myself and in others. From my life-coaching seat, I’ve noticed that the primary difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that the successful people fail more. If you see failure as a monster stalking you, or one that has already ruined your life, take another look. That monster can become a benevolent teacher, opening your mind to successes you cannot now imagine.

The Optional Agony of Defeat

My dog-groomer friend Laura breeds and shows prizewinning poodles. One afternoon she arrived at the off-leash dog park looking thoroughly dejected.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her as our pets gamboled about.

“Ewok,” said Laura, nodding mournfully toward her well-coiffed dog. “He didn’t even place at the show yesterday. Didn’t…even…place! And he just hates to lose!” Her voice was so bitter I winced. “He should have been best in show,” she said. “Look at him—he’s perfect!”

I looked at Ewok. He looked fine—but perfect? Who knew? To me, saying a poodle with long legs is better than one with short legs seems absurd. A poodle’s a poodle, for heaven’s sake. I think Ewok would’ve agreed. He certainly didn’t seem to be the one who hated losing. He’d discovered a broken Frisbee and appeared to be experiencing the sort of rapture Saint Teresa felt when visited by God.

Laura’s desolation stemmed not from what actually happened at the dog show but from her ideas about success and failure. Lacking such concepts, Ewok was simply enjoying life. Going to dog shows and winning, going to dog shows and losing, going to the park and scavenging—from Ewok’s perspective, it was all good. Meanwhile, Laura’s thoughts about losing had tainted all these experiences. Thankfully, she’d managed to avoid a pitfall even worse than failure: success.

“Success is as dangerous as failure,” said Lao-tzu, and any life coach knows this is true. I can’t count the number of times people have told me, “I hate the job I’m doing, but I’m good at it. To do what I want, I’d have to start at zero and I might fail.” Dwelling on failure can make us miserable, but dwelling on success can turn us into galley slaves, bound to our wretched benches solely by the thought, “I hate this, but at least I’m good at it.” This is especially ironic because researchers report that satisfaction thrives on challenge. Think about it: A computer game you can always win is boring; one you can win sometimes, and with considerable effort, is fun.

With time-killing games, where the stakes are very low, pretty much everyone’s willing to risk failure. But when it comes to things we think really matter, like creating a career or raising children, we hunker down, tighten up, and absolutely refuse to fail. Anyway, that’s the theory. The reality is, we are going to fail. Then we make things worse by refusing to accept this.

Tammy came to me distraught because her 17-year-old son, Jason—her perfect son, whom she’d raised with perfect love, perfectly following every known rule of perfect motherhood—had been arrested for public intoxication.

“I’ve failed,” Tammy sobbed. “I’ve failed Jason; I’ve failed myself!”

“Yup,” I said. “You got that right.”

Tammy stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Clearly, that was not my line. I shrugged. “You’ve failed a million times, and you’ve succeeded a million times. Welcome to parenthood. Do you know any mothers who never fail their kids?”

“Sure,” Tammy said, nodding. “A lot of my friends at the country club are perfect mothers.” She wept even harder. “And they say horrible things about the bad mothers. Now they’ll judge me, because Jason…” She dissolved in sobs.

“Tell me,” I said, “do you actually like any of those women?”

The sobbing stopped abruptly. There was a long moment of silence, and then Tammy seemed to transform before my eyes. She sat up straighter.

“You know, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t really like any of them.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I don’t know your friends, but if I had to live with someone like the person you were a minute ago, I’d start drinking too.”

“I do live with her,” said Tammy wryly. “And I’d love a drink.”

“Hear, hear,” I said. “So go home and apologize to Jason for imitating mothers you don’t even like. Try being real with him—teenagers love that. Every moment you’re real with him, you’re succeeding as a mother. Every moment you lose yourself by trying to be perfect, you’re failing. And the moment you accept that you’re failing, you’re succeeding again.”

Tammy squinted at me. “You’re telling me to accept failure as a mother?”

“Whenever you fail,” I said. “Got any other options?”

“Well, no…but accept failure? As a mother? I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” I said. “Try this: Think about the fact that you failed to control Jason. Notice how you’re all scrunched up, thinking, ‘Oh, no!’?”

Tammy nodded.

“Okay, now unscrunch, and instead of saying, ‘Oh, no!’ say, ‘Oh, well…’”

I beamed at Tammy. She waited for me to go on. I didn’t.

Tammy laughed. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “I came here thinking you could tell me how to fix my son, and the best advice you’ve got is, ‘Oh, well’?”

“Damn. You’re right,” I said. “I’ve totally failed you.” I took a deep breath, and relaxed. “Oh, well…”

Tammy looked at me for another long minute. Then she said, “Just your saying that makes me trust you.” This is the magic of accepting that you’ve done your very best but failed. Own your failure openly, publicly, with genuine regret but absolutely no shame, and you’ll reap a harvest of forgiveness, trust, respect, and connection—the things you thought you’d get by succeeding. Ironic, isn’t it?

Blasting Through Attachments

I owe my ability to accept maternal failure to my son Adam. Though I bred young, never smoked or drank, ate right, and all that, Adam showed up with an extra chromosome, mentally challenged. Oops. From the word “go,” I’d failed to make him a successful student, athlete, rocket scientist. In my mind, nothing could compensate for such massive failures.

This was when I discovered that the bigger the perceived problem, the better it delivers failure’s great gift: freedom from attachment to ideas about success. A lucky person escapes her enemies. But a really lucky person (as the poet Rumi puts it) “slips into a house to escape enemies, and opens the door to the other world.”

This can happen in tiny ways and huge ones. The day my pencil-proficient mind accepted failure and allowed my hand to start dancing with that mechanical pen, a door opened on a new way of drawing. Accepting that I’d failed to create a “normal” life for my child blasted away much bigger assumptions, bone-deep beliefs like “Successful mothers have smart children” and “My kids should never fail.”

This hurt like a sonovabitch, but when the rubble cleared, I found myself in a world where all judgments of success and failure are arbitrary and insignificant, as ridiculous (no offense) as the American Kennel Club’s definition of the “perfect” poodle. Without judgments, it’s obvious that joy is available in every moment—and never in anything else.

I can see that Tammy gets this. Jason’s rebellion becomes a gift as failure does for Tammy what I’ve seen it do for so many others: soften, mellow, calm, enrich, embolden. The poet Antonio Machado expressed it this way:

Last night as I was sleeping
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

I can’t say I look forward to the failures that await me. But they’ll be along in no time, so I feel lucky to know what to do when each one arrives. It will work for you too. Unscrunch. Exhale. Let go of “Oh, no!” and embrace “Oh, well…” Then, whatever door opens, walk through it.

Failing Upward

By my sophomore year in college, mechanical pens were my favorite drawing instruments. Trial and error (and error, and error) had made me so comfortable with them that they felt like extensions of my hands. Being a masochist and a fool, I signed up for another class from Mr. Reimann. One morning while I was drawing, something landed on my sketch pad. It was a watercolor brush.

“Use that from now on,” said my teacher. “You’ll hate it. You put a mark down on the paper, and half an hour later, it decides what it’s going to look like.”

I picked up the brush. “You’re not going to help me with this, are you?”

“Well, let’s put it this way,” said Mr. Reimann. “The sooner you make your first 5,000 mistakes, the sooner you’ll get on to the next 5,000.” And he walked away smiling his evil-plot smile, having arranged yet another dance with failure, inspirer of all uninspired artists, master teacher of all master teachers.

How to Find Joy That Lasts

189758_3698It was the bottom bottom of the ninth inning in game seven of the 2001 World Series. The New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks were all tied up. As Arizonans, my family and I were thrilled to see our state getting attention for something other than sun damage, so when Luis Gonzalez hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run, we went bananas—screaming, punching the air, jumping like jackrabbits on crack. Now, ordinarily my beagle Cookie (may he rest in peace) loved human celebrations. He’d howl along and do a little tap dance, castanet toenails clicking on the floor. But after Gonzo’s historic hit, as the rest of us shrieked in victory, Cookie ran trembling to hide under the bed.

While trying to extract him, I suddenly realized that our revelry had indeed felt a bit crazed. Upon further reflection, I saw that it echoed a similar craziness in the TV commercials that had aired during the game. On television, people weren’t just pleased about new dust mops or deodorants—they were ecstatic. Women threw back their heads to laugh wildly. While eating salad. Alone. Car salesmen announced bargains with such enthusiasm, I feared for their undershorts. In fact, everything I’d seen during the broadcast suggested that the ideal emotional state is one of intense, manic euphoria, and that we should all feel that way almost all the time.

Well, it isn’t, and we shouldn’t.

Cookie’s animal honesty woke me up to the strangeness of something I’d begun to take for granted: the fact that our culture has come to define happiness as an experience that blows your mind. It’s as though we’re somehow falling short if we don’t routinely feel the way Times Square looks—madly pulsing with a billion watts of Wow! 

Don’t get me wrong. Excitement is a great and necessary thing; without it life wouldn’t be complete. But happiness—real happiness—is something entirely different, at once calmer and more rewarding. And cultivating it is one of the most important steps we can take toward creating fulfilling lives.

Peak Experiences: Faux Happiness

Intense excitement is what Asian philosophy might call the “near enemy” of true joy—something that looks like the genuine article but is in reality its evil twin. When a gift recipient or jackpot winner starts shaking, screaming, or hyperventilating, we call it happiness, but actually it’s evidence that their neurological fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered. (This helps explain why it’s not just a play on words to say that mania can create maniacs, and why in some cases sports fans seem to riot more violently after their teams win than after they lose: Our fight-or-flight system predisposes us to violence.) Switching on this mechanism switches off the physiological processes that allow us to relax, connect, and absorb joyful experience.

What’s more, high excitement is often followed by a mood crash. Afterward we may go through a phase of feeling lifeless and depressed. Users of the recreational drug Ecstasy are familiar with the hormone drop that follows a weekend rave. They call it Suicide Tuesday, and if you’re an obsessive euphoria seeker, you’ve felt it, too, with or without drugs.

For people who think mania is happiness, the only remedy for Suicide Tuesday is another intensely exciting experience. This may explain why trips to Disney World are exalted like pilgrimages to Mecca, and why multi-day extravaganza destination weddings are becoming ever more the norm. The attitude can be traced all the way back to the European adventurers who seeded American society; they were always seeking some variety of El Dorado, some prize to top all other prizes. As a Pueblo Indian chief once told the psychiatrist Carl Jung, “The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”

The Plains of Peace: Real Happiness

True joy lacks the wild ups and downs of an excitement-based life. It’s a peaceful landscape, filled with peaceful thoughts and peaceful emotions. Indeed, it’s so peaceful that, to our adrenaline-soaked culture, it looks rather plain. In fact, I like to think of it as the plains of peace.

You can probably look back on times that didn’t seem very memorable when they were happening but that stand out in retrospect for their sweetness: floating in the ocean on a summer day; seeing the sun set as you drove home from work; picking berries in the country with friends. Relive those moments—the sound of the surf, the breeze on your face, the taste of salt on your lips, the gentle rocking of the water—and you’ll see that they’re rich, layered, and powerfully sustaining to the soul. Beagles, who wag their tails over every small joy, seem to recognize these moments continuously. Humans, not so much.

If you worry that your life is lacking in events so exciting they’ll make your head spin like an industrial food processor, I have good news: You can relax. The best way to increase genuine joy is to stop searching for manic highs and instead explore the plains of peace. Happily, you’re in the perfect place to begin: this very moment. 

How to Be Here Now

People started telling me to “be here now” when I was about 20. “Great!” I responded. “How?” Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn’t force my brain to just “be still.” Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine “hit,” make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you’re not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won’t want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating. 

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you’re physically and mentally active. You won’t notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind’s frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what’s occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it’s the opposite of dull. It’s infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you’re left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you’ll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You’ll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you’re not actively creating. When this happens, you’ll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

And when something genuinely thrilling happens, you’ll be ready. That wild rumpus celebrating the Diamondbacks’ victory in the World Series turned me into a baseball fan. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed watching large men in pajamas strive for victory. I enjoy going briefly berserk when my team wins. I enjoy seeing the women in commercials ecstatically dust their furniture. But I don’t take any of it seriously. What I do take seriously is the lesson I learned from Cookie and his successor, Bjorn: that happiness is available to me in every moment. It’s there in the words I’m writing now, in my engagement with those around me, in the happy sigh Bjorn breathes as we sit together exploring the plains of peace. Wow. 

Turn on Your Right Brain

This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains. For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer. Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits of eight books: four read more…