Setting Yourself Up to Fail for Fun and Profit

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
-Samuel Beckett

Closing in on the 7th, uphill mile, my body was screaming for a break. Terrible camp sleep the night before, coupled with barely any breakfast, and hiking at 9,000 ft for the first time in over a year with a 30 lb pack, I was ready to throw in the towel. Gasping for breath, dreaming of lunch, and thighs a-blazing, I let out a contented sigh. This is exactly why I planned this trip.

It's pretty easy to fall into monotony. Plateaus in our growth can lead to too much time in our comfort zones. As you master a new skill, become familiar with a new job, or if you coast through life without taking stock of what you want, it's really easy to rot away behind a desk while you bring home a paycheck.

In my experience, as you grow and progress, plateaus in skill development and life appreciation tend to become obvious to me more quickly. Once you start leveling up in life, the times when you slow down your development stand out like a sore thumb because you know what sort of growth and discomfort you're capable of.

Monotonous plateaus can be good. They're a chance to slow down and assess where you are, how far you've come, and where you'd like to go. They serve an important purpose. You simply can't fire on all cylinders 100% of the time - it's impossible. Well, it's possible, but if you do it for too long you fry out and down that path madness lies. Monotony let's you steady yourself so that you can begin to reach for what's just out of grasp. If I ever start to feel to comfortable in my day to day routine or if things feel too mindless, then it's time to plan for a shake up.

Prolonged plateaus are bad. For someone who has been on a growth trajectory, prolonged time without growth is akin to death. They indicate that the person experiencing the plateau isn't challenging herself enough. If you're not growing, you're dying. That's just basic physics. If you're not careful, a prolonged plateau can just morph into, "this is my peak, I'll never go up from here," which can manifest in two ways. The first of which is a sad and mopey attitude, where you resign yourself to staying right where you are because you'll never get better. The second one, is an arrogant attitude where you just assume that you're awesome and have nothing else to learn or do to get better. In both cases, the end game is the same, you stay right where you are.

If you feel like your entire life has been a plateau (been there), then it's even harder to get the momentum to reach for something better. It's a tough place to be. At once you feel like every task is a monumental, ass kicking challenge, but at the same time, with some perspective, you realize it's not that hard of a thing. When you're in this state, some version of your best self, no matter how buried he or she is, can sense that you're not living up to your potential. This discord between your current reality and what some tiny part of yourself knows you can achieve is crushing and mires you down in your muddy plateau.  But, since you've never actually challenged yourself in a real way, you never learn to make progress and excel to the level beyond your plateau. It's a self-defeating cycle.

All that said, I find it important to set yourself up for controlled, major failure a few times a year. Major failure can look like a lot of things to a lot of people, so adjust accordingly based on where you are if you try. Failure is usually an impetus for change, so it's helpful to me to self-inflict it every once in awhile when I need a booty kick. This allows me to mentally and emotionally plan for failure fallout, toughens my resolve, and lowers my resistance to trying new things when the stakes are actually high and could reap benefits.

 There are a few important steps to setting yourself up to fail productively:

1. Plan a failure that is just a tiny bit out of your comfort range.

This one is important to get right. To bust through your plateau, the thing you challenge yourself to has to inspire and scare you. This way, if you pull it off, you can celebrate your hard-earned victory, but if you don't pull it off you can rest easy knowing that you gave it your best shot and figure out how to do better. If you've been stuck for awhile, start small. Momentum is critical.

2. Setting your failure expectations are important.

"Failure" has some pretty loaded connotations, so I want to frame how I'm talking about it. In my eyes, for these purposes, "failure" is growth. If I'm in a plateau, that means I haven't tried anything new in awhile, which means I haven't failed at something new in awhile. There is no growth with no failure. Walking into a challenging situation with the knowledge that you might fail sets you up to not only know that failure is a possibility, but also that failure will kickstart your next phase of growth. With that in mind, there is no room in this experiment for shitty self talk or being mean to yourself about the failure, because failing is exactly what you set out to do. In addition to leveling up your growth, this experiment levels up your ability to choose better thoughts about any situation you find yourself in. It's practice without the live ammo of actual failure  

This is why I planned a 16.4 mile day hike. Partly, because I'd probably run out of time and fail to finish it, but there was a small chance I'd make it the whole way. I had to trust myself and know my limitations while I hustled up that mountain.  Turning around would also mean that I had the humility to admit defeat. Waking up in the freezing darkness, hiking up 8.2 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation on the way to an alpine lake, then back down the same course in reverse before sunset is challenging on an emotional, physical, and mental level. I also often choose hikes as my controlled failure, because, as you can probably tell by now, my long term goal is to be a wild mountain child as frequently as possible. Hiking is just something I enjoy doing, which makes it easier to learn to enjoy the process as much as I enjoy chilling lakeside at 10,000 ft. It reminds me to do the same thing across other aspects of my life. 

Regardless of whether or not I "fail" during one of these experiments, there is always so much to celebrate.  I always learn something new about myself, can plan for improvement, or I learn that I need to recalibrate what a "challenge" is for me. All valuable information learned in a controlled, enjoyable setting. Failing to fail can kick us out of complacency, and controlling a fail let's us do that without a giant heartbreak. 

What do you think? Is planning a controlled failure crazy? How can you tell if you're in a plateau? Tell me in the comments. 

PS -- totally finished the hike that day, and I'm pretty sure a mountain lion wanted to eat me too.