The incident happened many years ago, but the images from the event burn brightly in my mind’s eye.
Playing a fierce high school rival, the soccer game seemed destined to end in a tie. Time was our enemy as the end of the game crept ever closer.
Crossing the midfield line at a sprint, a teammate passed the ball from across the field, placing it squarely at my feet. The presentation was perfect. The closest defender started towards me from 30 yards away.
With two quick touches at this speed, the distant closed quickly. I only had a moment to decide on passing the ball or take the outside shot at a goal while still well back from the 18 yard line.
Something inside felt right. The confidence was there. I still had a clear line, but the arch of the shot needed to be spot on. Time was wasting. The sidelines cheered. Teammates screamed for the pass.
I took the shot.
Climbing high and wide, time stopped and the world’s movement became little more than a blur of slow motion. The ball climbed to its apex and then dropped toward the back front corner of the goalpost.
I was breathless waiting for this moment to end, wondering if I’d made the right choice or if my team mates might hate me for ruining our shot at victory.
And then the ball dropped; into the elusive back corner of the net. The whistle blew. We won the game.
Elation overwhelmed me.
The bench cleared and my team surrounded me, cheering and hugging each other with the sense of celebration only someone who’s been there can relate to. It’s surreal.
As suddenly as it arrived, the day of victory was over. We played many more games during my high school years, but the others are little more than a recollection in my mind.
Only this one is still strong. A success I hang on to tightly because I need this memory on some days, just to get through.
You see, failure is a beast that opens its putrid mouth and snaps at my heels regularly. I smell the stench of disappointment lurking close by, waiting to strike.
Do you run across this monster often?
My days drag me through mine fields of emotional turmoil. I can’t seem to create a worthwhile thought in my head, and I struggle to see good in the sunshine. My thoughts are tangled in a web of stormy weather.
I have significant accomplishments throughout my life, and I’ve done good things while creating worthwhile memories. That history is still on my timeline for anyone to see.
But the fog of failure obscures my view more times than I care to mention. I focus on these setbacks by default and need to actively search my emotional library to find the references to happier events.
It turns out, failure short circuits our brain. Left unchecked, failure can lead to more failure.
According to noted UCLA neurologist Judy Willis, “As you internalize your thwarted efforts to achieve your goals and interpret them as personal failure, your self-doubt and stress activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. As these circuits become the automatic go-to networks, the brain is less successful in problem-solving and emotional control.”
Regular failures don’t make us better by default as thought Nietzsche’s adage ( “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” ). They, in fact, can do just the opposite if we don’t respond correctly to them.
Left to their own accord, repeated failures lead to burnout.
They rewire our brain for more failures. So instead, we need to actively use episodes of a perceived failure to find new and more positive outcomes.
Bottom line; we must fight the urge to focus on any failure once we figure out the lesson learned. Alternatively, we have to energetically seek an optimistic outlook.
In a meta-analysis of 225 academic studies, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener found strong evidence of directional causality between life satisfaction and successful outcomes.
When we approach our day with positive mindsets, performance improves in nearly every aspect.
Happiness researcher (doesn’t that sound like a great job?) Shawn Achor explains, “I could focus on the one failure in front of me, or spend my brain’s resources processing the two new doors of opportunity that have opened. One reality leads to paralysis, the other to positive change.”
So I have a choice.
Failures happen, sometimes in epic proportions. How I respond determines what happens next.
JK Rowling is no stranger to failing, and before writing her “Harry Potter” series, struggled daily. But she provides some excellent advice in hindsight;
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”
I can’t fear failure, instead I need to acknowledge this difficult part of living and use it to my advantage.
Sometimes I still may need to dredge up the elation felt from scoring a high school soccer goal, but that’s OK. It brings with it the chemicals my brain desires to rebuild circuits for tomorrow’s happiness.