Whenever you’re trying to develop a new skill, regardless of whether it’s learning a new language, playing a sport, learning an instrument or trying to get better at dating, you go through several distinct stages.
In the first stage, you’re practically fumbling in the dark. You have only the vaguest idea of what you’re doing, and you have no experience. All that you know for sure is that you suck. A lot.
The next stage, where you slowly start to build the experience and proverbial 10,000 hours of practice, are the most frustrating.You have occasional moments where you get one aspect or another of the skill down but then the next time you try, you screw up. You sink the occasional basket, but you’re still missing more often than not. You can play a chord or two but you can’t string them together into an actual song. You understand the theory, but you consistently choke when approaching a woman for the first time.
These are the pain sessions, where those rejections and fuck-ups are made all the more infuriating by the occasional flashes of competence that you just can’t seem to repeat at will.
How much pain you’re dealing with depends on one critical question: have you embraced the power of failure?
Failure Isn’t Bad
One of the hardest parts of getting better at dating isn’t necessarily trying to overcome approach anxiety or learning the right balance between being too aggressive and being so passive as to end up in the Friend Zone – it’s getting past the idea that failure is inherently a bad thing.
A lot of people look at failure – especially failure in dating – as an indictment of their worth as an individual; that if they were a better person on the whole, they wouldn’t have failed. They can’t manage to get a woman’s phone number, or to get her to call them back, or that first date, or a second date, or sex, and take this as proof that they are somehow deficient or sub-par in comparison to a world where everybody else seems to succeed with so much ease.
This is an excellent example of a self-limiting belief – by attributing your success (or lack thereof) to some unseen imperfection or fault, you actually rob yourself of the ability to get better. Failure is merely not getting the desired result. When you set the idea of failure as some horrific state to be avoided at all costs, you make it impossible to look at it dispassionately and objectively and to learn from it.
The focus on success is actually misleading; in fact, it’s actually harder to learn from success because often you’re not able to see all of the factors that lead to making it a success. Did something succeed because of pure random chance, or because you did everything right? Were you firing on all cylinders the night you got that phone number, or did you happen to find someone who was feeling lonely and you reminded her of a guy she had a crush on in college? Sure, you got a result that you wanted this time – and that’s good, don’t get me wrong – but what do you do if and when you can’t reproduce that success? You aren’t necessarily aware of weaknesses or areas that need improvement.
It’s in failure that we find the flaws, the mistakes, the places that need improvement, and this is incredibly valuable. How can you improve if you don’t know whether the problem was a lack of skill, a deeper personal issue or even just plain bad luck?
When you treat every attempt to, say, approach a woman at a party as an all-or-nothing affair then you aren’t able to correct for your mistakes and do better next time.
Pardon me while I get extra nerdy on you for a moment with a trip into the Star Wars expanded universe1 . Consider the differences in leadership between Darth Vader and Grand Admiral Thrawn from the (rather excellent) Timothy Zahn novels.
Many men tend to fall into the Darth Vader school of failure. When Admiral Ozzel allowed the rebels to escape Hoth, Vader responds to Ozzel’s failure… badly.
In the novel Heir to the Empire, Luke Skywalker escapes from an Imperial Star Destroyer by executing a highly unorthodox maneuver, destroying a tractor beam and escaping into hyperspace. The helmsman assigned to the tractorbeam admitted to having screwed up, expecting to be summarily executed. Admiral Thrawn pulls him aside and, rather than having him killed, commends him for embracing his mistakes, the better to learn from them.”Do you know how he managed to escape? Good. Come up with a countermeasure so that he can’t do it again.”
By accepting responsibility for your failure, you take the first step toward being able to make sure that you don’t make the same mistake twice. This is how we improve.
Why Do We Fall?
When we treat failure as an all-or-nothing event, it’s only natural that we start to fear failure. After all, why would we want to face the humiliation, disappointment and judgement that comes from failure? We naturally shy away from things that we find disturbing or painful, so of course we start to anticipate that pain and anxiety.
Of course, when you’re afraid to fail, you end up afraid to try in the first place. Not trying, in many ways, is actually more comfortable; when you don’t actually make the attempt, then you can bask in what might happen without actually taking any risk. You can enjoy the mental glow of the potential success instead of putting your ego on the line in reality and having to face the potential of failure. Ironically, that potential actually makes it worse. Ask any artist or writer: there’s nothing quite so intimidating as a blank page or canvas, full of infinite possibilities. The greater the potential for success, the greater the potential for catastrophic failure.
Unfortunately, potential without the will behind it is wasted. Spending time focused on the potential is nothing but mental masturbation; it might feel good but it’s getting you nowhere. All you are doing is expending mental energy on a poor substitute for actual success that will ultimately leave you unfulfilled and dissatisfied… and more importantly, teaches you nothing.
Why do we fall? So we can learn how to get back up again. Why do we fail? So we learn how to recover from it.
If you spend your time being so terrified of making mistakes that you avoid doing anything, then every mistake ends up being a game-ender. Not letting mistakes and failures destroy you is an important part of growth. It hurts – these are the pain sessions after all – but it’s pain that should inspire you to learn and move forward. One of the key skills that you gain from embracing failure rather than fearing it is learning how to think on your feet and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Think of a comedian who bombs on stage. She has a brief window of opportunity: either she can fall apart and let her set be ruined… or she can plow forward and save her routine. You can’t learn this skill without being willing to go out and make mistakes in the first place. Johnny Carson used to go out during performances and bomb deliberately, telling jokes he knew were stinkers just so he could practice winning the audience back. In fact, he was so good at it that it was practically his trademark for years.
Not freaking out over every mistake has saved my ass many times. Early on in my progress, I used to have the worst approach anxiety. There were times when I was spending so much time trying to muscle my way past the adrenaline burst and the pounding of my heart that my mind would go blank at critical moments. It was like every nightmare you’ve ever had of being on stage during a play and forgetting your lines. In a panic, I would say whatever came to mind first… which was an excellent way of looking like I was talking to the aliens that beamed instructions from the CIA into my brain.
More often than not, this would end with the woman laughing (at me) and walking away… if I got any reaction at all. I’d crawl my way back to a corner absolutely mortified and refuse to approach anyone else for the rest of the night. As I started to understand that I should embrace my mistakes and not fear rejection, I started to understand that just because I tripped over my metaphorical dick, it didn’t mean that things were ruined. If I kept my head about me instead of panicking and falling into damage repair mode, not only could I recover but I could often turn it to my advantage.
I remember one night where I approached a girl at a night club. I was so nervous I literally choked trying to talk to her. Instead of slinking away with my tail between my legs, I decided to continue. Once I could breathe again, I said “Hold on, I can do that better,” took five steps back and approached her again. “Better, right? Yeah, ok, cool. I liked that one. Let’s stick with that.” She started laughing (with me) and just like that, I was in. Two drinks and a lot of jokes later, we were trying to find an unoccupied booth in the VIP section for surreptitious makeouts.
Not bad considering how this could have destroyed me for the rest of the night.
“They’re All Just Practice”
Part of why we fear failure is because we treat every interaction as if it were the last chance we have to… find love, get laid, get that job, whatever. Small wonder then that every potential fuck-up is invested with apocalyptic importance – when you are stuck with a scarcity mentality that insists you only get one shot and one shot only, then you’re going to be psyching yourself out.
We get so caught up in the idea that we have to succeed at Every! Single! Approach! that we can’t possibly learn from it. Except… nobody wins them all. Nobody. Brad Pitt doesn’t go 5 for 5. Neither does Ryan Gosling. Or George Clooney. Or Usher. Or any other celebrity you care to mention. I’ve gotten shot down more times than I can easily count. I’ve watched some of the most charming, attractive bastards swing and miss. I’ve seen Mystery get blown off by women who’d been eating out of his hand minutes before.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that some folks don’t even have to try. But the truth is, we don’t see them fail. It’s a case of confirmation bias; you believe that other people have it easier than you do and then every success you see (or imagine) just goes on to confirm it for you. You’re making judgements from incomplete evidence and presuppositions.
Back in the early days, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my wingmen and hitting up the bar scene three, sometimes four nights a week… and I couldn’t get past the idea that I had to “win” every time I approached or else I was a massive failure. It didn’t help that I’d watch my buddies go out and apparently do so much better than me. Part of what I couldn’t understand was how one of my friends, Jack, seemed to just… zero in on people. He’d breeze through the crowd like he owned the place, talking to one person, then another before setting up with the girl who would eventually go home with him later.
When I finally asked him, he told me his secret.
“No, I get shot down a lot. It just doesn’t look like it because I just roll on to the next person without stopping.”
“Doesn’t it get to you?” I asked. Each time I got blown off was like a dagger to my soul, a little more of my ego getting fed into the shredder.
“Nah, they’re all just practice,” he said. “If it doesn’t go well,” he shrugged. “Who cares? It was just practice and now I’m going to be a little better next time.”
Jack understood what I didn’t: that there was always going to be another opportunity. He had a classic abundance mentality: if this person didn’t like him, it didn’t matter because there were more women out there who were just as hot, just as awesome and who would like him. So if things went badly, the only thing to do was absorb what was useful, turn to someone else and try something a little different. And damned if it didn’t work for him.
I, on the other hand, had a scarcity mentality; I saw women as a dwindling resource and every one I struck out with was just one step closer to being Forever Alone. As a result: Jack’s mistakes were just practice, learning experiences that he could use to improve himself. Mine were a series of catastrophes, each one further reinforcement that I was fooling myself and I was never going to get any better.
How To Fail The Right Way
It took a while to wrap my brain around the idea that failure was a resource. I had to adjust my world view; up until then, every mistake I made was just one more thing in a seemingly neverending mountain of faults, flaws and inexperience that I had to deal with. Taking such a negative view directly affected how I interacted with others; I was self-conscious and uptight and women could sense that. I invested every single conversation with earth-shaking importance and couldn’t just relax and let things flow.
Once I began to understand the value in failure and embrace the abundance mentality, I started to understand. Those mistakes and errors weren’t just one damned thing after another, they were milestones along the path. Each problem I identified was another step closer to success; once I identified an issue, I could resolve it and not have to deal with it again. And the more mistakes I made at the beginning, the fewer I would make later on when it counted. I could get my biggest sticking points out of the way and start to work on fine-tuning my skills.
This was a breakthrough for me. Up until that point I, like so many others, didn’t want to make a move unless I was absolutely guaranteed success. If I thought there was even the slightest chance I would get turned down or rejected, I wanted no part of it.
It was a classic case of letting perfection be the enemy of the good. If I couldn’t be 100% sure, I didn’t want to even try.
Of course, all this was just how I rationalized not taking any risks. It was just a case of my trying to insulate my ego from the potential of failure.
And so I threw myself into practice. Approaches still made me nervous, but once I could accept that it “didn’t count”, I was able to make my move. When I got shot down – and I did – I would take a moment, process what had happened, then find someone else and try a different tack. The more approaches I made, the more I was able to focus in on the real problems and correct for them.
This is how you make through the growing pains and into being skilled. You embrace your failures and learn from them. Celebrate them. They’re some of the best resources you have.
And the more failures you learn from, the more ready you will be for success.
- Yes, I feel dirty bringing it up. [↩]