Failure has been a theme in my life for several months now, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. At first glance failure and success are opposites: to fail is to not succeed and success is an absence of failure. In my ruminations, however, I’ve come to understand that while they may be polarized, more often they are intertwined in a complex relationship.
Failing to Succeed
In an industry my work role covers there is a very difficult-to-obtain certification; I’m attempting to get the certificate. It’s been years since I was a learner, and I knew there would be a lot of detail stuff that I might know, but not deeply. So I decided to take a prep course to help me out. I figured it would get me into the right ‘head space’ to be a learner again, and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
Yes and no.
It turns out that I am an abysmal adult learner. I simply do not memorize data any more. If I use it, or need it, I know it; otherwise, it is just gone from my head. It also turns out that there is a HUGE amount of data that I need to know – perfectly, in a very specific manner. So I am doing what you are supposed to: I read the material, I go to class, I talk about the material I just read, and clarify things more deeply, and then I take a test on it . . . and get 72% (which is not passing on this exam). That info should be fresh in my head, but it isn’t.
So I am failing. It’s getting harder each week to go to class, I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, that I’m learning anything, and it’s a huge waste of time (and money, of course). I’m a middle-aged woman who used to do well in school, and now I can’t seem to do it right at all.
It’s a drudge.
On the other hand, it’s an interesting situation for me because I don’t ‘fail’ very often. Although I don’t think of myself as a particularly driven person, nor a perfectionist, or Type A (people who know me well are laughing right now), I also don’t fail at what I attempt, not very often. How many people do you know who think of a topic for a book, write it in 6 mos and then get it published the next year? Although I would argue that I don’t stray far from my comfort zone . . . that may not actually be true, and I’m quite lucky in my success.
In any case, I’m failing to succeed at this class.
It is incredibly frustrating. (I’m trying not to whine about this, but put it in sharing terms that educate and enlighten. But I admit there is a part of me that is whining, loudly.)
What to do? Just keep at it. I’m mentally prepared to fail the exam, in which case I will sit for it again the next time it’s offered. I am not trying to fail, or giving up; I’m just making room in my life for the (big) disappointment that failure will bring.
I’m exploring alternative ways to study. The classroom isn’t doing it, so I’m basically re-writing (in outline form) my textbooks. I’m repeatedly taking the practice exams. I am talking about what I’m reading to my partner and I’m copying out every question I don’t get right, or hesitate a long time with. (The latter is so that I only focus on the pieces I really don’t know rather than trying to jam the entirety into my head.)
Failure as Success
At the same time, I’m in the middle of my 2nd month of SuperSlow, where failure is a goal. Each session (2x / week) I am achieving muscle failure. It is an incredibly non-intuitive, strange, disconcerting phenomenon.
You’ve worked out, right? There came a point when it got really hard. Either you were tired, or the weights got too heavy or, you were just at the end of the set. Remember that? Generally we have a set response, by personality and inclination. We may ‘push through it’ or grimace and ‘bear down’ or just ease up and stop and take a breather.
In SuperSlow you do none of these things.
An example might best illustrate what does happen. One exercise I do is the leg press, which is very heavy at this point. I am always pushing from my heels (not my knees or quads) and keeping my motion steady and the pace appropriate. After maybe 3 reps, I am pushing the plate and nothing moves. Based on past experience, this would be the time when I would either ‘dig down’ and push harder, grimace in exertion and push harder, brace myself better, and push harder, or back up and give up.
Instead, I do none of those things, I simply (hah!) continue to exert pressure, focusing on my heels, and increase my breathing rate in a calm fashion. My face is relaxed, my entire body, excepting the muscles in my lower back through the legs, is completely relaxed. If the plate moves further, great, if I just maintain the pressure evenly until my trainer says to release, great.
It’s kind of zen.
And it’s a major mind trip. I am actively looking to fail. Failure is the goal. And once I achieve failure, the goal is to stay there until I am released.