Monday, August 23, 2010

Let Go and Hang in There

As much as we'd like to attribute success to skill, insight, know-how and talent, as much as we'd like to attribute failure to overwhelming odds, stacked decks and tremendous challenge, success and failure are almost always simply a matter of attrition. It's only rarely that we actually fail; most of the time, we just give up.

Now, I've got no problem with quitting. I think quitting is often the best course of action, especially when you're pursuing something where succeeding isn't all that attractive or when you're working with others who themselves aren't really about succeeding. However, what I often notice is that people have a strong resistance to simply saying: "I quit! I gave up! I could have succeeded if I just kept going, but I didn't want to."

Instead, they site the challenges they faced: running was really hard on my knees. They may site mitigating circumstances: then my job changed, an I simply couldn't get up every morning and write. They may passively blame others: we simply couldn't find enough people to work with our child. They may blame Froid: I'm just not the kind of person who can handle that kind of pressure. They may blame their parents: when I was a kid, I was never given any self-confidence.

All these may be contributing factors, but none is actually a reason for failure. They're what we in the trade would call: lame excuses. In the end, you gave up, you quit.

Not That There's Something Wrong with That
So why not simply say it? I imagine there are as many reasons as there are people and situations, but all have at their core a judgmental attitude towards quitting. Most of us were raised with the idea that quitting is a bad thing. You have to hang in there. What are you, some kind of quitter? You gotta admire someone who's willing to go the distance. Quitter is synonymous with loser. No, strike that, quitter is worse than loser. Losers die trying. Quitters are deserters, betrayers.

Of course we could further complicate this by attributing our attitudes towards quitting to our parents or society. But, regardless of the source, our attitudes (no matter how they got there) are ours alone to maintain.

Here's the really interesting part. I would wager that the reason most of us quit is based in our judgmental attitude towards quitting. Because we deem quitting worse than losing, we end up in situations where it would be better to die trying than to win. Surviving against all odds, going the distance, dying for the cause are all admirable. To quit is to be disdained.

So, rather than simply saying, "I quit!" we become saboteurs. We plant the seeds of defeat and cultivate them. We notice every ache and pain as we begin running. We push hard on the people that would help us looking for flaws, cracks and fissures. We find reasons to have no time to write our business plans. We push ourselves extra hard, denying ourselves downtime, to test our endurance. We actively expose and amplify anything that might go wrong. We plan our exit strategy from the get go. We weave our led parachutes. And before you know it, voila, the weight of the parachute drags you out the back of the plane.

Letting Go
The sequence often proceeds as follows. You begin by anticipating failure. However, you judge failing as bad, so you determine that you're going to need to quit. However, you judge quitting even more than you judge failing, so you begin to actively and covertly pursue acceptable ways to fail. You plant seeds. You look for evidence. However, the seeds grow uncontrollably and before you know it, your reserve plan to fail has bloomed into a robust garden.

So, one could argue that all failure is rooted in clinging to success, making succeeding important, paramount. If you let go of succeeding and instead simply work towards your goals with no thought of success or failure, you increase the likelihood of success.

Immune to Burnout
When Iris and I meet new people, the topic often turns to "So, what do you do..." When I describe my work, people either glaze over or they seem unduly impressed or they look at me incredulously. When Iris talks about spending twenty hours per week playing with children with autism, the response is always, "Wow, that must be terribly demanding and tiring work." There seems to be a universal belief that working with children with autism is hard.

I'll often explain that Iris typically comes home with even more energy that when she left the house. Her work isn't a challenge, it isn't hard, it's energizing! And again, I get incredulous looks. People will often explain that they know someone who works with autistic kids or that they have a family member with an autistic child or that they themselves have spent time with autistic kids. It's a burn-out job. It wears you down.

Some will assert that Iris must simply be very resilient. Others, that she must be very good and successful. But, it's not that. Whether a child has a breakthrough or exhibits signs of moving backwards, Iris comes home all Chatty-Katty enthusiastically describing her day and what happened. It's not that she's successful. It's not that she has great endurance and resilience. It's simply that she enjoys what she's doing and is enthralled with what she learns. Most importantly, she's not hanging on to success. Therefore, she's not afraid of failure. Therefore, she's not looking for reasons to justify quitting. Therefore, all she sees is goodness.

Are You a Quitter?
Look, whether admittedly or not, every person on the planet quits from time to time. When was the last time you quit? Did you declare it loudly, or did you explain it away trying to translate it into overwhelming defeat? Why did you do what you did?

What activities are you currently pursuing while surreptitiously planting the seeds of defeat? Where are you hanging on so tightly to success that you're wearing yourself down? What things are so important that they've become burn-out jobs?

What will you do differently today than you did yesterday or last week?

Happy Monday!

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