3 min read

The stages of failure

The stages of failure

Things aren't going exactly as planned.

As I mentioned in my article about the problem with New Year's resolutions, my initial goal with this blog was to publish one post per week.

But it's been 4 weeks.

And I haven't published anything.

I knew this would happen eventually, but I didn't expect it to happen so early in this project.

I could make excuses. They float up to the surface of my mind like ice in a vodka soda — the dense, liquidy problem hiding beneath. My Super Self doesn't make excuses, though. He lets his actions speak for themselves. And my actions have not matched my intentions.

This used to be a big deal.

I would treat a small failure — for example, the failure to be consistent, to maintain a behavior that wasn't very feasible — like it was proof of a bigger failure, proof that the overall goal would never be achieved.

Goal: Publish lots of articles on this site.

Stage 1 Failure: Not publishing an article every week.
Stage 2 Failure: Not publishing an article for several months.
Stage 3 Failure: Not publishing an article for years at a time.
Stage 4 Failure: Taking down the site and no longer paying hosting or domain fees.

Like cancer, all of these failures are theoretically curable. But the likelihood of curing them decreases at each progressive stage.

Right now, I have Stage 1 Failure, and I'm in danger of progressing to Stage 2 Failure. Luckily, all I have to do to cure it is publish this very article you're reading right now.

Simple enough.

But it's tempting to overreact when you hit Stage 1 Failure and give up on the entire goal in the first place — to artificially advance to Stage 4 when you don't really need to.

I did this when learning Japanese back in 2010.

After a year and a half of studying, I felt like I'd made a pitiful amount of progress. (This was due in large part to how poorly my studies were organized, but I didn't know that.)

It was Stage 1 Failure. My goal had been to get to a high level of proficiency in Japanese, but because it was taking a long time, I decided my efforts had been a waste, and I quit. I self-diagnosed myself with Stage 4 Failure.

I could have just kept at it. I could have realized that just because things weren't happening the way I wanted, that didn't mean the end-goal was impossible to achieve.

Deep down, there was a voice telling me just that: You will never be fluent. So why are you even trying? Stop wasting your time.

This voice is the gremlin.

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield calls it the Resistance. I prefer to put a name and face to it — a real person that I have no interest in ever being around, let alone listening to their opinion.

The gremlin doesn't want you to do the thing. It wants you to stay where you are and how you are, and it will tell you terrible things to make sure that you do.

One of its tactics is to convince you that you're experiencing Stage 4 Failure when the problem isn't really that serious.

Yeah, I said I would publish an article every week. I didn't. That doesn't mean I can't try again, that this site can't still become what I want it to be.

So rather than listen to the gremlin, I'm hitting publish on this post. I'm curing this Stage 1 Failure before it has a chance to spread, the same way I eventually did pick up a Japanese book again.

Maybe I'll be consistent this time.

Or the next.

Or the next.

Or the next.

When I'm diagnosed with a Failure, I almost always have the option to cut it out. To try again. To keep going.