It’s said that the measure of a man isn’t in how he avoids failure but how he’s able to recover from it. And there’s a certain amount of truth to that. There will be days that wouldn’t go right if you held a gun to it’s head. Then there are the times when life becomes an absolute disaster.
Failure is an intensely personal thing. We all define failure differently; to some, the end of a relationship is a failure. To others, it’s watching your business start-up crash and burn before your eyes. To still others, it’s the time when you reached for your dreams… and found them slipping out of your grasp.
I remember what was easily one of my biggest failures in life. In 2004, I had what I thought was the perfect life. I had a dream job that paid me obscenely well and had me working with some of the most talented artists in the country – including several who’ve gone on to work at Bioware and Marvel. I was dating someone I thought was the perfect girlfriend. I’d just landed a distribution deal with Diamond1 which meant that my graphic novel was going to be in comic stores around the world. For one brief moment, I had everything I ever wanted.
Of course, irony, not gravity, is the strongest force in the universe, which meant that I was fucking doomed. I may as well have stood on a mountain and yelled “GOD’S GOT SHITTY AIM.”
I was fired from my dream job. Two weeks later, my perfect girlfriend dumped me. The week after that, I got the call from my Diamond representative who gave me the final kick while I was down; my comic’s sales were abysmal and they wouldn’t be carrying it any longer. All I was waiting for was my apartment to burn down to complete the blues musician superfecta. In the span of two weeks, I’d had almost everything I ever wanted yanked away from me. I knew it could be worse – I wasn’t in immediate danger of being homeless, for example – but at the time, it was pretty damn brutal.
Sometimes life will knock you flat. You will try your hardest and still watch your dreams end in failure. It can devastate your ego, shred your confidence and leave you feeling like a quivering mass of shame in the vague shape of a man. But as much as failure may hurt – and it may well wound you to your soul – it doesn’t mean that you need to let it scar you for life. Failure can be one one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever be given… as long as you know how to recover from it and move forward.
Feel Your Feels
The first thing you need to do is let yourself feel.
You would think this would be obvious; after all, you’ve just had your soul get kicked in the nuts. But for many men, failure is equated with the shattering of their masculinity.When manhood is defined as being the provider, losing your job or watching the business you created with your own two hands crumble around you means that you’re watching your manhood disintegrate before your eyes. Your relationship failing means that you weren’t man enough to keep her around. The only shred of manly pride you have left comes in suffering in noble silence; the only time men are allowed to cry is when their father or their dog has died. They want to put on the brave face and try to deny the truth: that they’re hurting. They’re in pain. They want to scream out at universe over the unfairness of it all.
But they don’t. Better to bottle it up, push it all down. Pretend that that you’re not feeling all the anger and pain and depression. Better to be stoic, fatalistic even, because that’s how a real man does it.
The problem is that inconvenient emotions don’t disappear just because we like to pretend we’re not feeling them. You can’t just stuff the emotional pain from failure down the memory hole and call it good. Bottling all of those emotions up means that they’re inevitably going to leak out. Trying to hold it in means that the anger and pain is going to leech into your soul, poisoning your spirt. It leaves you anxious, sitting in the back of your mind and whispering to you about how you failed, about how you weren’t good enough, how everything you do is doomed to failure. That negativity will just build and build until you eventually let it all out in one emotional explosion… most likely at the worst possible moment. And that explosion is going to set back any progress you might have made in trying to move on.
You need to let yourself feel, to confront that anger, to own it.
At the same time however: you don’t want to wallow. There’s a difference between letting yourself feel and throwing yourself a 24-7 pity party. Excessive self-pity is as bad as trying to not feel at all, and makes it impossible for you to let go and move forward. This includes venting, by the way. Letting off steam is one thing. Continually doing so actually makes you feel worse.
So how do you find the balance between feeling and not falling into self-pity? Give yourself a deadline. Psychotherapists have long advocated giving yourself a set time in which to have a good old fashioned (temporary) emotional meltdown as a way of purging the anger and shame and frustration from your system. How long though? That can depend on you. Jeremy Bloom – an Olympic skier who choked during the 2006 Winter Games gave himself exactly 24 hours to vent after his massive defeat. As soon as that 24 hours was up, he put it behind him and focused on moving to his next goal. This may not be enough for you – you may need two days or three. Just don’t let it linger; the point is to feel your feels and let them go. And part of how you do that?
Practice Self Care
Venting can feel good, but it can backfire and make you a more negative person over all. The best thing you can do to be able to move past a recent failure is to do the things that get you past the anger and help you let go of it… and you can’t do that while you’re busy feeling like shit. Experiencing a major failure is an emotional wound and your wounds aren’t going to heal if you keep picking at the scabs. Punishing yourself for failing is counter-productive. It reinforces negative thought-patterns and self-limiting beliefs, when what you need to do is be able to look at what happened and learn from it. Self-flagellation is emotional BDSM… and you just forgot the safeword.
This is why one of the most important parts of recovering from failure is to make a point of being good to yourself. Self-care, taking time to just make yourself feel better, both in general and about yourself, is how you learn to put away the anger and the shame.
Part of it means simply indulging yourself for a little while in things that just make you feel good – or at least let you get away from the pain. Hole up in your apartment, order in an obscenely large pizza and binge on Vikings and Orphan Black. Marathon your way through the Baldur’s Gate games. Camp out on the porch with a bottle of Scotch and a big pile of graphic novels. Hit the gym like it owes you money and get lost in burn of your exhausted muscles.
The other thing to do is to find your team. You want people around you who’ll be there for you, who support you and let you know that you’re not alone and who want to help you feel better. They don’t have to be around you all the time. Hell, they don’t even have to be in the same city. You just want to know they’re there and ready to lend you a hand when you need it. No man is an island and getting support from your friends doesn’t make you weak or any less of a man. Trying to tough out the fallout from failure on your own out of some mistaken ideas about masculinity only makes it that much harder to recover.
Just remember that while being a little self-indulgent is good, you don’t want to cross the line to self-destructive. It’s possible to turn the things that help you feel better into their own form of punishment. Food, for example, can quickly go from comfort to another way of beating yourself up. Holing up in your apartment can go from “I need to be alone to heal” to “I need to be alone because I’m a disgusting failure and nobody would want to be around me.”
Move To The Next Project
As you’re recovering from that last failure, you want to occupy your mind. There are few things that are as good for pushing out negativity and self-doubt as keeping busy. The more active you stay, the less time you have to wallow in self-pity and replaying all of your mistakes in your mind. You don’t want to completely ignore where things wen’t wrong last time – that just ensures you’ll repeat the previous failure – but you can’t let them stop you from doing anything either.
Now in fairness: sometimes you don’t want to leap right back into the exact same thing that failed. Not everybody with a failed start-up wants to immediately turn around and being another. After a bad break-up, some people prefer to take time off from dating in order to get their heads straight and deal with any issues they may have from the previous relationship. But even if you don’t necessarily want to leap back onto the metaphorical horse, you should be doing something. If you’re taking time off from dating, for example, then it’s a great time to invest in yourself. Cultivating your passions, getting more actively involved in your hobbies, even just taking time to travel or take some classes you’ve always been interested in can be ways of recovering from failure and coming back stronger than ever.
Bouncing back from failure also doesn’t mean you need to be doing the exact same thing you were last time. Sometimes your next project may be a complete reinvention of yourself or going in a direction you never expected. Sometimes it’s failure that empowers us to pursue things that we never realized we wanted to do in the first place.
Don’t Worry About The Rebound
One subset of failure that tends to leave people devastated are the end of a marriage or any long-term relationship. Divorce can be an ugly process – even when going through it means a marked improvement of your life – and can leave people afraid to try to love or even date again. The spectre of that failed relationship hovers over you as you slowly start to dip a toe back into the dating pool again. “What if I’m on the rebound?” they ask. “Is it too soon for me to try again?”
It’s notable that dating is possibly the only place we tell ourselves that there’s a waiting limit before we can pick ourselves up and take another swing at the process. Someone who just had their business fail isn’t looked at with pity when they try to build a new start-up. An athlete who blew the big game isn’t looked at with pseudo-concern when he immediately goes back into training. But after a break-up, we obsess about “the rebound”.
Except the rebound isn’t really a thing. It’s just what we ascribe as the reason to a relationship’s failing if we didn’t wait an arbitrary amount of time since our last break-up.
It’s kind of insane when you think about it; if we take the idea of being on the rebound seriously, then we can functionally never date; we are more or less always on the rebound because all relationships fail until one doesn’t. If you date someone on the rebound and you break up, that effectively restarts the clock, taking you out of the dating pool for longer. If we ascribe being on the rebound only to relationships of certain lengths, then it just points out the arbitrary and artificial nature of it. Yes, relationships can fail because someone hasn’t recovered from the last one… but time isn’t a guarantee that you’re over someone. You can overinvest in somebody whether you’re freshly out of a relationship or not. There’s such a thing as getting back into dating before you’re ready… but that can be true at any stage of your life. Everyone heals at their own rate. Some people are over a relationship – even a multi-decade one – before they even break up. Other people may be devastated by a 6 month relationship for years. There’s no way of predicting how long you may need before you’re ready to date again and trying to assign numbers to it is a pointless endeavor.
Plus: for many people, dating can be a form of self-care. When you’re coming off a bad break-up or divorce, being reminded that people find you attractive, that you have options and that there are other people out there who’re open to relationships. The key is not to go into a dating situation assuming that this person is going to heal you or fill the hole in your life…but that’s true of all dating.
If your last relationship failed, don’t sweat the rebound. Don’t worry if it’s too soon or not. Try again when you’re ready.
Remember: You Have Failed. You Are Not A Failure
One of the hardest parts of recovering from failure is separating having failed from being a failure. One is an unfortunate event and the other is a state of being. Just because you didn’t succeed at something – and all of us fail many, many times – doesn’t mean that you are forever defined by that failure. It just means that this one thing didn’t work.
And sometimes that failure is the kick in the ass you need. My personal failure – losing the job, the girl, all of it – is what put me on the path to where I am today. It helped me to realize where my true passions lie, inspired me to reinvent myself and rebuild my life. And I can honestly say: I’ve never been happier or more satisfied than I am these days. Yes, the process of getting here sucked… but the results have been worth it.
It can take time to learn from a failure. In the immediate aftermath, the pain may be too fresh and too present. But it’s important to perform your own post-mortem when you have distance and perspective. Sometimes you can see where you went wrong with crystal clarity. Other times you may need to consult with others to see what went wrong. But it’s important to remember: as long as you learn from a failure you can improve. You can do better. It’s only failure when you don’t let yourself bounce back.
- the only major comic distributor left in America [↩]