08 July 2011

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

Winston Churchill


For the last three months I’ve been lifting weights on a program called Stronglifts. I’ve lost almost 20 pounds, while gaining a lot of muscle at the same time. I work out three days per week and focus on big compound lifts that work the entire body. The most important lift is the back squat, which is when you put weight on your back, drop till your hips are below your knees, then stand up. On stronglifts, you start with just the empty bar, and add only 5 pounds per workout.

At the beginning of the program, this makes you look a little strange. People wonder why an otherwise healthy looking guy is squatting sets of 50 pounds instead of 200. However, as the program goes on and you keep adding weight every workout, that 50 turns into 200, and you realize that adding 15 pounds per week to your squat is unsustainable. Eventually you’re going to fail at your squats.

I failed at my squats last week for the first time, at 220 pounds, and it gave me a new perspective on failure in general.  When you fail at squats it leaves you in an interesting predicament, essentially stuck with a 200 pound weight on your back. You can’t stand back up, because the weight is too heavy. However, the safety bars are a few very difficult inches below where the weight is. You are stuck until you literally collapse yourself and bail into the safety bars.

Now, there were two ways that I could have failed at that squat. I failed at the bottom after giving it my all, putting myself into an extremely uncomfortable position in order to succeed, and failed anyways. The other way to fail would have been failing at the top, still standing, before I squatted down.

When I think back on the failures in my life, most of them have been failing at the top, where I convinced myself not to even try. Failing at the top is so incredibly easy. It’s a trivial exercise for my brain to convince me that what I’m trying to do is impossible, and if not impossible then at least improbable, and if not improbable then it’s just a bad time right now to be doing it.

I’ve certainly had some spectacular failures at the bottom. The failures at the bottom are public, messy, embarrassing, and can take a while to recover from. However, they are the only failures I don’t regret. At least I tried.

There are a couple of strategies I have been using in order to combat my natural inclination to fail at the top before even trying anything. For weightlifting, the strategy has been not to give myself a choice whether or not I try to lift the weight. If I am supposed to do five lifts, I do five lifts, even if I failed at the fourth one. If I could find a way to remove the choice from other things I need to be doing, it would make things a lot easier.

However, since removing choice isn’t an option for most big decisions, another tactic is needed. When I used to weigh decisions, I would focus a lot on the probability of success versus the probability of failure. This was not the best way to weigh important decisions. Now, I think about what would happen if I succeed, what would happen if I fail, and if I fail, how would I recover?

This shifts the thought process away from worrying about failing or succeeding to worrying about how my life would be in the success scenario versus the failure scenario. If I’m confronted with a situation where success would make my life amazing and failure wouldn’t be that bad, the odds of success almost don’t even matter.

Many people fail to consider the “how I would recover” aspect. As a trivial example, say a guy wants to go talk to a pretty girl at a bar. There is an argument that since the probability of failing is incredibly high; he shouldn’t even go try to talk to her. Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of guys fall victim to this incredibly flawed decision making process. The reason this is flawed logic is because even if you fail, recovery is a snap, you just keep it moving. People are terrified of failure in any way, even if the cost of that failure is barely noticeable.

In the end, you have to put yourself on the line. Even if you fail, it’s probably going to be easier than you think to recover. In life, not taking a risk is the biggest failure. If you’re going to fail, better to fail at the bottom having given it your all than to fail at the top, too scared to try.