Our Responses to Failure

MarathonI am puzzled by the various ways in which people respond to their failures.

Some want to talk about it over and over, diagnosing what went wrong and analyzing what would have made it go right, whether or not such scenarios are realistic. Others want to pretend it never happened, and they wish you would too. Some push on immediately, dauntless. Some collect themselves for a long time, but eventually move forward. Some give up without a second thought.

Why? What explains these differences?

I’ve thought about this long and hard, both because it fascinates me and because I find myself in the probably very common position of having dreams I must accomplish or OMG I WILL DIE. I won’t, of course, but that is certainly how it feels, most often at two o’clock in the morning. That special time when all the things you hate about you surface and begin to cavort about like a gruesome carnival of failure.

Yes, I have dreams I’ll probably never give up on. I have others that I’ve batted away without so much as a flicker of guilt. Does this mean I care about the ones that stay and not about the ones I banish? Maybe, or do I just think the ones I hold onto will be easier to accomplish? When people say goodbye to long-held dreams after a particularly crushing disappointment, is it because it just isn’t worth it anymore, or because they truly believe they’ll never make that dream happen?

There is a subtle but important difference between these two beliefs that fascinates me. When it comes right down to it, it’s a difference between believing a dream is everything and believing it would be nice, but only to a point. Clearly, some people consider their passions worth everything: they’ll move anywhere, give up any relationship, do anything. Others will strive, but only to a point. And still others wait for things to come to them. Sometimes they do; more often they don’t.

I wish I could figure out what internal mechanism defines how willing you are to give for your goals. I’d be curious to see if people who sacrificed more were happier, or if the reverse were true. And I want to know if people have a set level of how much they’ll give before something becomes untenable, or if it changes along the way in response to success, failure, starting families, life crises, and so on.

For now, I have no answers. What about you?


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