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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Importance of Failure, part 1

Update: A version of this two-part blog post can be seen on Google Knol at I invite you to review the article and suggest revisions.

Failure is defined by Wikipedia as, "the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective. It may be viewed as the opposite of success." By identifying why and how we fail, we can reduce the possibility of the same failure re-occurring in the future. In part 1 of this post, I look at the reasons behind failure and our initial response to it.

Why We Fail
I would like to talk about failure in the present-tense, in terms of a specific trial period. During the pre-trial period, we prepare for the attempt; during the post-trial period we look at the effect the pre-trial preparations had on our measured variables. The trial period itself is when we attempt to meet or exceed a pre-determined standard to test our theory. The trial might be as short as a single repetition or as long as a macrocycle or an over-all program.

In the gym we fail because, (1) Something—a value—in our control was not appropriate for the desired outcome, (2) a value outside our control entered or left the system before we could adapt accordingly, or (3) a combination of 1 and 2 happened during the same trial period.

Values outside our control are difficult to anticipate. Values inside our control are much easier to monitor and maintain. The more values in our control, the less opportunity there is for an unexpected outcome to our trial. We use the pre-trial period to modify, adjust and augment the values in our control to produce the best results we can when the trial begins. A solid training and nutrition program, for example, is designed to produce the best results it can before the deadline for the goal. For athletes, the goal is a winning season; for powerlifters, it's more weight on the bar at competition; for you, it might be a slim and sexy body by summer. It's what you do during the training sessions (the pre-trial) that influences how you look on your first day at the beach (the trial).

What Happens When We Fail
For some reason, you failed. You did not meet the objective and now you must deal with the consequences of your failure. Most likely, you will have an emotional response to the event. These emotions are normal and necessary. Anger, sadness, surprise, guilt, rage, relief, whatever—they are your feelings and you are allowed to feel them. You are also allowed to express them in an appropriate manner. Emotion is all part of the post-trial period, and we must allow our emotions to carry us into productive action.

Oftentimes, we replay the event in our head looking for an explanation of the failure. This is a wonderful process and can be of great value—but only if we stay objective during our review. Emotion, while necessary, can also cloud judgment and should not be carried into the subsequent stages of the post-trial period. Feel your feelings, then move on.

An objective after-action review can lead to great insights. Ask yourself, "What was out of my control?" Things outside our control must be recognized and accounted for. Write them down. After writing them down, ask yourself if there is any way to prepare for those things in the future. If there was bad weather, can you get a weather report before the next event? If you wore new shoes, will they be broken-in before next time? Once you've compiled a list of items outside your control that can be compensated for, discard whatever remains. There is nothing you can do about them and you should not waist time trying to fix them.

Next ask yourself, "What was in my control?" and write those items down as well. Which items were truly ineffective? Which items were ineffective because they were not taken seriously? Did you stick to your diet? Attend every training session? Use appropriate resistance? Separating the ineffective from the incomplete will help establish the over-all quality of the pre-trial period. Sometimes we're lazy and let a good program go bad. Other times, the program is bad to begin with and there is nothing we can do. It is important to understand which type of program we are dealing with before we can make improvements to its design.


In part 2, I discuss methods to prevent and overcome failure. Stay tuned.

Original post published Jan 10, 2009

1 comment:

Jacob said...

After our talk today I realized that I hadn't checked up on your blog in a few days. I was quickly served a nice plate of crow concerning my comments on the language barrier of your blog. This one spoke out loud and clear. I like it. It makes sense, and it's fair.

I struggle with this myself; namely taking an objective look at why I fail. I enjoy second guessing myself. Part of my own ego causes me to place too much importance on my failures, and not enough on my accomplishments. It's an ego imbalance either way.

I try different things to get around it. Something I tried for the first time this year was making a list of all the things I was proud of during 2008, and all the things I wish were different. Hardly an innovation, but it helped me in every way.