I looked up at the bar, but I knew I couldn’t do any more. I had reached muscle failure. I looked at my coach, feeling defeated, and said, “I’m done.” She looked at me warmly and said, “Okay.”
As I caught my breath, I thought about how I didn’t make it through the whole workout. It was a failure, a disappointment.
Then I looked up at the whiteboard, where the workout was written. I started counting up the pull-ups I had completed in the 20 minute workout.
Wait a second…when and how did doing 56 pull-ups become possible? And when the heck did it start to represent a failure?
I started CrossFit about two years ago. I cared only about gaining energy and sleeping better so I could live my life more fully.
But soon there were other perks. I got a lot stronger. I made friends. My body changed. The tough workouts helped me gain confidence in how mentally strong I am.
So why with all the apparent “successes” did I feel like a failure on this particular day?
In his funny and brilliant TEDx talk, positive psychologist Shawn Achor says that your brain keeps changing the goalpost for success.
If you are trying to run five miles, you might feel great the first time you get it, but then your standard changes. Pretty soon you are disappointed when you “only” ran ten miles.
Without practice, our brains will start to attend to the negative information. We focus not on what we are doing, but on what we aren’t doing.
While I was overjoyed when I did my first pull-up, my goalpost for success kept moving.
Soon, I had moments of not appreciating how far I had come.
I’m glad I recognized my warped perspective that day and was able to change my mood from one of defeat to one of pride.
Having the ability to shift perspective is one of the keys to happiness.
Achor points out that the realities of the external world only account for 10% of your happiness. The other 90% is the way you think about your life and the world.
Being happier in the present is how we end up being more productive and thus more successful.
He says most people are doing things backwards, waiting for happiness that follows success. If we wait to “get” success in order to be happy, it won’t come. Remember, success is always a moving target.
So how do we focus on happiness in the present?
Achor suggests some very simple but effective techniques, such as writing one thing we are grateful for each day for 21 days. He also suggests writing one positive and encouraging email to someone in your social circle.
He is also a proponent of exercise (though I’m unsure of his position on pull-ups specifically).
November is the perfect time to start one of these practices that emphasizes gratitude. If we start to look for things that are positive in our lives, our ability to sense and store positive information in the brain becomes strengthened.
But sometimes it is hard to see this positive information. Maybe it’s more than just habit.
At the heart of it, I think failure is just fear in disguise. We ask: What if I fail? But what we are really asking is: What if I’m not good enough?
Being “good enough” means being loved and feeling a sense of belonging. These are the most important aspects of our survival aside from food and shelter.
As infants and small children, heck even as teenagers, we are dependent on others to live.
This makes us vulnerable to fearing the loss of love and acceptance.
In our fear, we see all the ways may not be love-able and acceptable. Our story of ourselves becomes one of “not enough.”
This habit of fearful thinking, of collecting data on how we don’t measure up, becomes a huge distraction. It becomes a lens for seeing ourselves and the world. It can take an awesome accomplishment and make us only see the “not-quites.”
How do we get out of the habit of fear/failure thinking and feel assured of being good enough?
I believe we are all worthy of being in this human tribe. We belong by virtue of being born.
Let me call in an expert to back me up. He’s the one person who has done the most remarkable job of making children of all ages feel loved and accepted. And he’s someone you want in your corner.
In the incredible Crayon Factory Tour Episode, it turns out there is a goldmine of tidbits on how to overcome fear. It’s probably the best 28 minutes of television ever. Go ahead and Hulu it.
In the episode, after Mister Rogers shows us the mesmerizing crayon factory film, he does a little drawing. He even admits that he’s not very good at it. It’s true. He’s not.
What he teaches in those moments of drawing a primitive little scene are invaluable life lessons. He teaches about valuing the process, not the outcome. He remarks, “It’s just the fun of doing it that’s important.” He notes the satisfaction that comes from just taking on a task. “It feels good to do things,” he says.
He even notes how empowering it is to try things and make them happen, saying, “Until you start to do it, it will not come true.”
I think it’s evidence of my claim that there is no failure, only never trying.
It’s the trying that matters.
In case we are still feeling a little afraid to try our hand at drawing (or pull-ups, or a job interview, or a relationship, or a game, or a trip, or a class, or a test, or a speech, or whatever feels so darn scary), Mister Rogers says:
In a way, you have already won in this world because you are the only one who can be you. The things you do are always a little bit different from anybody else and that’s the way its supposed to be.
I believe it.
I believe just being you is enough. Everything you try will be unique to you. It will never be evidence of you being not enough. It will only be evidence of you showing up and trying in this world.
Truly believing this is what makes for real happiness.
Whether you are pulling your body weight up so that your chin touches a bar or something more lofty like starting a new career or making a major life change, please do it.
Do it your way, with all your effort. There is no point in holding back. Do it for the love of doing it, for the sense of pride in doing it, and because only you do it in that unique way.
And when you are through, you will know who did it. Because you did it.
I’ll be back when I’ve recovered from writing this freakin’ long post. And I’ll have more ideas for you.
Until then, do you have things you want to talk about?
Let’s converse in the comments section, okay? What do you think? Is Mister Rogers awesome or what? Is failure about fear? How have you learned to overcome fear of failure?
(Special thanks to photographer Chris Bean for the pull-up picture)
New to this blog? It’s all about giving you a fresh perspective on emotional well-being. There is a subscribe button over there in the left margin. I also offer counseling and coaching for people looking to make positive life changes and overcome fear. Email me at [email protected] or call 207-553-2260 for more info.
I love Mister Rogers. It’s amazing to go back and see just how much he taught us as children. I actually just had a conversation with my 4 year old about failure. He was upset about not beating us (meaning me, my husband and his 8 year old brother) at Yahtzee. I pointed out that he actually did play well and beat my score many times. The fact that he couldn’t beat his dad and brother (who are way too good with numbers and dice) wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t beat them either. But they can’t draw turkeys like he can. Our perspective in life is so key to happiness I think. Have you checked out The Smile Epidemic yet? You totally should.
It’s a good point. We all have something going for us. Some have Yahtzee skills, some have turkey drawing skills. I suggest your family play Pictionary next time to even things out. I will check out The Smile Epidemic, thanks for the tip!