This morning I had a conversation with my past self. She said she was disappointed in my life, and I said, “That’s fine,” and sipped my tea.
There’s not that much you can say to your past self. The things you need to tell them are mostly things you can’t tell them. “Time traveler’s paradox” aside, most people don’t really understand things until they’re ready. One of the benefits of talking to your past self is you can save yourself the effort; you know, better than any other possible mentor, what your past self isn’t ready (or willing) to understand.
I am perfectly aware I’m a disappointment to my past self. It’s a long list. I don’t work for the UN, the World Bank, or any other household-name governmental or non-governmental body; I don’t hold a teaching or research position at a university. I haven’t started any companies or non-profits. I haven’t solved any intractable problems or written any works considered “indispensable” or “essential.” I have an impressively short list of committees chaired, working groups led, or panels moderated. Or participated in, for that matter.
It’s gotten to a point where I can look at my past self’s to-do list and feel like I spent the last seven years dodging bullets, Matrix-style. Thank God she didn’t know how to get what she thought she wanted. Plus, I got this cool trench coat and shades out of it, so…’nuff said. *Adjusts shades.*
Back to my past self. She has1 a lot of great ideas, goals, and ambitions. She has so many that they prevent her from getting anything done because she has no idea where to start. And she has no idea where to start because everything seems so immensely important – her future is on the line, remember! – that she’s terrified of failure. No, actually, she’s crippled by the idea of failure. So she spends a lot of time imagining “success,” because she’s heard it’s important to know what you want out of life.
There’s a problem with imagining “success.” It’s a really amorphous concept. It’s a constantly shifting benchmark2. Worse, it’s subject to a great deal of external pressure. Everyone else has a simple formula for success, and it boils down to “be like me.” You don’t notice it’s horrible advice until you know more than one other person.
In short, you can spend a lot of time trying to imagine success and still come up with both nothing and everything – neither of which are good places to start. So my past self is a bit…stuck. But she’s determined. Good Lord, that child has determination. I think I’ll have some more tea and wait this one out.
I am fine waiting because, recently, I had a bit of a part-the-clouds moment. Without going into the gory details, it boils down to this: instead of defining success, define failure.
I know, I’m an optimist. Imagine some sparkles and sunshine. (And please understand this may not work for everyone; I simply offer it as a potential path for those struggling with the specific issue of “fear of failure.”)
Here is an oversimplification: when possibilities for “success” are infinite (see, I told you I was an optimist), there’s no point in wasting energy trying to work out the infinite.
Instead, start where you are. You’ll find that “failure” – in contrast to “success” – is often a very stable concept. There are many ways to achieve degrees of success, but usually failure consists of a few large, simple actions or omissions3. Identify the few, large, simple paths to failure.
Your goal is now very simple. Instead of working toward success, work to avoid failure. Any time you avoid failure, congratulate yourself: job well done.
You think this invites mediocrity?
No. It forces you to push through mediocrity. “Avoiding failure” sounds simple, but sometimes it’s very hard indeed. In my case, the things that consistently cause failure are behaviors that are very ingrained. So it can feel downright Sisyphean to keep at it. But I would argue that subverting ingrained tendencies is the very definition of not-mediocrity. In fact, there’s another way of looking at this: if you don’t want to accept mediocrity, you must become comfortable directly addressing failure. There is no other way to move past your internal status quo.
My past self was not comfortable addressing failure. She wasn’t comfortable thinking about failure. And she didn’t want to learn how to avoid failure when she was convinced she knew how to pursue success.
The irony is, I can’t even say I’m sorry she didn’t get what she thought she wanted. A lot of the stuff composing her idea of success now sounds like my idea of hell. She had her ego pinned on being an expert, and “expert” is a very fragile title. It’s a very stagnant job description.
I’m deeply grateful to her for diving in and finding out what didn’t work. I’m grateful for her perseverance when she didn’t know what she was doing, although – from today’s perspective – her behaviorisms also look suspiciously close to the definition of insanity. Sometimes I wish she had learned more quickly, but the time traveler’s paradox cuts both ways – so I have to respect her choices.
And when she says she’s frustrated, disappointed, impatient, and overwhelmed – usually all at the same time – I just have to reassure her and tell her to hang in there, understanding comes a day at a time..
After all, I talked with my future self yesterday. That’s what she told me to say.
1 Had? I mean, I’m currently talking to her…we’ll stick with present tense and call it the least of our worries.
2 Don’t believe me? Have yourself a few successes. You’ll notice they don’t really stick around. The minute you achieve “success,” your metric has changed. Furthermore, even if you can define success (and good for you if that’s the case) – spend some time deciding if you want to. Once you’ve decided what it is, you close yourself off to the possibility of other “equally good” outcomes.
3 Excluding what the insurance companies label as “acts of God.” If it’s good enough to expunge the responsibilities of insurance companies, it’s good enough for me.