Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Get Used to Failure if You Want to Overcome It

Failure is something we all dread. The fear of failure often produces tremendous anxiety. The experience of failure often produces depression and shame and bitterness. Notice those are all emotions that Christians are told to resist and overcome. We are not meant to sit alone after a loss, feeling sorry for ourselves and wondering if we have what it takes. We are meant to put our trust in God and keep going. (See 2 Corinthians 1:8-10.) Easier said than done, of course. But here is one of the most encouraging lessons I've seen on why you should simply make peace with failure and keep pressing on through it.

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven, a Navy SEAL for 36 years and ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, gave an extraordinary commencement address in 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin. You may have seen it shared widely on Facebook and in many blogs and business and professional magazines. The YouTube video embedded below has had over 3.4 million views, and rightly so. The speech is remarkable because Adm. McRaven drew on ten lessons from Navy SEAL training that apply to pretty much everything in life and work for anyone. They're all good, but there is one that made a huge impression on me. It's the lesson of the "sugar cookie."

Several times a week, the instructors would line up the class and do a uniform inspection. It was exceptionally thorough. Your hat had to be perfectly starched, your uniform immaculately pressed and your belt buckle shiny and void of any smudges. But it seemed that no matter how much effort you put into starching your hat, or pressing your uniform or polishing your belt buckle — it just wasn't good enough. The instructors would find "something" wrong.
For failing the uniform inspection, the student had to run, fully clothed into the surfzone and then, wet from head to toe, roll around on the beach until every part of your body was covered with sand. The effect was known as a "sugar cookie." You stayed in that uniform the rest of the day — cold, wet and sandy.
There were many a student who just couldn't accept the fact that all their effort was in vain. That no matter how hard they tried to get the uniform right, it was unappreciated. Those students didn't make it through training. Those students didn't understand the purpose of the drill. You were never going to succeed. You were never going to have a perfect uniform.
Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or how well you perform you still end up as a sugar cookie. It's just the way life is sometimes.
If you want to change the world get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. 

Mark this: the people who gave up and went home - the ones who didn't become Navy SEALs - were the ones who couldn't accept failure. The ones who succeeded and became SEALs were the ones who learned to get used to failure and keep going. The point of the exercise was to ensure that everyone ended up a "sugar cookie." No illusions here that some people always get it right while others fall short. The only way forward was to accept that you were going to fail, and to keep trying anyway. What sent some of the men home was simply pride. Our fear of failure, and our avoidance of situations where we might fail, does not come from an urgent need to accomplish important things. The people who accomplish important things are the ones who keep trying and failing until they get it right. Our fear and avoidance is due to our vanity in wanting to look successful and impressive. The ones who went home were the ones who couldn't handle the idea of having to look like a failure in order to get to the point of success. 

Bonus points if you're thinking: Kobayashi Maru. This was the infamous test at Starfleet Academy in Star Trek that every person training for command must take. And it was deliberately impossible. This quote by Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film captures it perfectly: "The purpose is to experience fear. Fear in the face of certain death. To accept that fear and maintain control of oneself and one’s crew.” The purpose of this training exercise was never to succeed. The purpose was to learn to maintain courage and control even when everything failed; to avoid giving in to panic or despair. The lesson is to never let your perception that you are failing or your fear of losing tempt you into giving up. The people that succeed are the ones that refuse to give up after failing (or after thinking they've failed).

The application for Christians is critical: more often than anything, it's our doubts about how we're doing and our own insecurities that discourage us and cause us to get derailed. Very often we are on the right track spiritually but we lose heart because we can't see that things are working out. Our perception is that we've failed, and we shrink back from what seems hopeless. 

Keeping our faith fixed in God includes persevering in doing the right thing even when the evidence of our senses tells us we're losing. We trust in God's point of view instead: "When I thought, 'My foot slips,' your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul." (Psalm 94:18-19). One of the precious comforts in Scripture is that God often does His most glorious work when it looks like it's already too late. Think about how the disciples felt for those three days after Jesus died upon the cross. And then...

We need to stop keeping score of our "successes" and worrying if we think our "failures" outnumber them. We need to stop measuring ourselves against other people or against what we think a successful Christian should look like. Everybody ends up a sugar cookie sooner or later. Instead, we need to keep following Christ in every way we can, and trust Him to make the most of the results.

"Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." (Hebrews 10:35-36)

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