Fun & Failure

Early in the summer I had the opportunity to give a workshop at the University of Buffalo.  The evening before I gave it I had the opportunity to sit down and have dinner with Nancy Smyth, the Dean of the School for Social Work.  Although we’d never met before in person, the time sped by with good conversation and laughter.  Fortunately I had finished my prep for the workshop, because I was quick to crash that night.

The next day I spoke in front of a group of clinicians, caseworkers, and administrators.  The age ranged from 20s to 60s, and the discussion was so lively that the day sped by, and before I knew it, I was being ushered out of the classroom and into the car to the airport.  The workshop participants did not agree with each other (or me) on all points, but everyone said that they were walking away with me having changed their thinking about technology, video games, social media and healthcare.

Sometimes I take for granted how much fun my work is.  There is enough diversity in who I work with to keep me invigorated most days, and the balance of a portfolio career really suits me.  Being my own boss suits me as well, and this year I mixed it up a little.  I dropped one class I was teaching and took this semester off so I could focus on writing and promoting my new book.

Promoting Reset is not something I enjoy doing.  Although I coach and blog about the importance of self-promotion and what hold us back from doing it, that doesn’t mean that I enjoy doing it all the time.  But one thing I have been learning is that writing the book was the eas(ier) part.  I need to keep getting the word out about it, and sometimes I feel like I am overtaxing the patience of my Twitter followers, Google+ circles and Facebookies.  Some of these people are in multiple groups, and I can imagine that they get irritated with another post about the book.  “Enough already!” I imagine them saying.

Speaking up is not easy, and many of us actually have a much easier time speaking up for others than for ourselves.  We speak up for our clients, our kids at school, our pets when they depend on us for care.  It’s ironic that we get so good at striking blows for freedom, blogging against oppression, picketing, and political advocacy; and yet we cringe at the idea of promoting ourselves.  Perhaps that is because the former makes us feel righteous, and the latter makes us feel guilty.  I definitely enjoy advocating for technology and the people who use it with my colleagues, but I wonder if I would have promoted my book at Buffalo if it had been published then.

I’d better get used to it, because now there are more speaking engagements coming up, and having an eBook means I can’t just lug a pile of them to the the hotel and have them sit on a table.  I need to be speaking up about Reset, because no one else will.  And one thing I have also learned to do at talks is to let people in them know I enjoy speaking engagements and am available to do more.  And each time I have done that, I have gotten a lead.  Hopefully out of all of you reading this I’ll get hired to do another few.

This is such a contrast to my clinical work, where I am required to be more quiet, reflective, and other-focussed.  I am not alone in this, psychotherapy tends to require us to listen more and talk less much of the time.  It is also a safe place to “hide out” if we aren’t careful.

One of the most unfortunate lessons our current educational system teaches us is that we should hurry up and find out what we are good at, what comes easily for us, and then stick with that.  In school settings, not-knowing is considered a bad thing rather than the predecessor to curiosity.  By college we have learned to speed through any unpleasant “requirements,” and major in something that interests us.  The problem with this is that by then we have learned to take an active disinterest in things that we struggle with.  So we arrive in adulthood having learned to play to our strengths, and avoid the rest.  And whereas children are fairly powerless to avoid what they struggle with in school, adults can often construct a life that cocoons them from learning unfamiliar things.

Therapists in particular, have pushed themselves through grad school and internships, licensing tests and boards, and by the time we get licensed to do private practice we feel entitled to close the office door on outside influences.  Several times when I have been hired as a coach or consultant, I still find my clients reluctant to “come clean” about things they aren’t good at.  Some haven’t billed insurers for months because they don’t know how to do the paperwork, or a claim has been denied and they are letting the appeal sit on their desk.  Websites lie around half developed, brochures printed up but not mailed, and all of this is nothing compared to the disarray and avoidance of work/life balance.  Office hours are whenever the patient can make it, their specialty is “anxiety and depression,” and they are running themselves ragged.  And all the time, they suspect that they are really frauds awaiting discovery, and why?  Because they learned that you aren’t supposed to admit you are confused or don’t know something, let alone ask for help.

Fortunately I play video games.

As Jesper Juul points out in Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games failure is more than just about not winning.  It forces gamers to readjust their perceptions.  In fact, players prefer games where they feel responsible for failing.  What’s more failure adds content to the game.  Think about what a powerful paradigm shift that is.  Failure adds content that wouldn’t be there.  What might happen if we were able to see failure in our lives as adding content?

Actually, therapists often have a lead in understanding this.  We know that empathic failures are often inevitable, and that when we successfully navigate them with our patients the relationship deepens.  The failure adds content.

So think about your life, your practice, your business or your relationship.  And look straight at where you are failing in it.  I know, it’s tough, but try it for 5 minutes, and then ask yourself, “what content is this failure adding to it?”

This is much easier to do in hindsight, which is why we need to try to practice it in the now.  Because if we don’t avoid seeing the failures, we can readjust our perceptions and progress farther.  Maybe just a small progression, but anyone who works with kids knows the importance of proximal goals.

To go back to the Buffalo speaking engagement, this began as a failure and the setting of a proximal goal.  The failure was this:  I wasn’t getting enough paid speaking engagements.  How did that add content to my life?  Well, it added the mission, should I choose to accept it, of getting more paid speaking engagements.  So I set the proximal goal of starting to let people know I was looking for them.  One night on Twitter Nancy said something complimentary about a blog post, and I quipped that she’d better hire me as a speaker before my rates went up.  A few months later I was invited to speak.  And in addition I deepened a connection, met some really cool students, and saw Niagara Falls for the first time in my life:  How’s that for added content?

So much is possible for you, your business and your life.  None of what I have described above was achieved because I have some special gene.  It took what Pema Chodron calls going to “the places that scare you.”  We are all failures at something–come out of the closet!  Over 6 billion people around you are failing and trying and failing and trying again every day.  Those that aren’t are hiding inside an ever more rigid and constricted life.  That doesn’t have to be you, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be me.

Oh, and I hope you buy my book, and I’m available for speaking engagements, so call me.  😉


Like this post?  There’s more where that came from, for only $2.99 you can buy my book.



  1. Nice post, interesting discussion on psychology of avoidance of failure…

  2. Congratulations on your book!! I have a feeling it will be a success. I read the preview but couldn’t find an option to buy other than on kindle…

    Best of luck 🙂

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