6 steps to kicking failure’s sorry ass

This past weekend, on Sunday, I participated in a half Ironman triathlon. For those of you unfamiliar with triathlon, that’s a 1.2 mile swim followed by a 56 mile bike ride followed by a half marathon run (13.1 miles).

I spent much of the previous day getting my stuff ready, crossing off checklists, and planning.

I got up at 4:30am.

I drove nearly 3 hours.

I set up, got into my wetsuit, and, at the signal, began two large laps around buoys in a cold, muddy lake.

I got out, swapped gear, and rode the first 18.6 mile loop on my bike.

And then, after completing the second loop, totally out of gas and nauseated, out of metabolic fuel but unable to make myself eat or drink anything, I decided that this event had beaten me.

I packed up my stuff, unceremoniously returned my timing chip (which hadn’t been working anyway, I found out), and walked back to my car several hours ahead of schedule.

After months of preparation, many, many hours of work, and a $130 entry fee, I’d failed.

Not. Fucking. Cool.

How to deal

The entire trip home, I alternately steamed, pondered, and tried to decide what to do next.

We all fail. I’ve written repeatedly about failure, and typically my advice is the same coachy-sounding stuff that, this time, wasn’t helping my mental state at all: Learn and adapt. Dust yourself off and get back on the horse. If it means something to you, don’t give up. But somehow this felt different. This wasn’t my normal breed of “try and see” failure. This was deeper. Somehow it was worse. I had to process it. I had to fight past my initial reaction (anger) and get at what was beneath it.

My situation around this bit of failure was, of course, unique to me, but the process is something that anyone can use. So hang in there, and maybe you’ll learn how to deal with something that’s been eating at you, too.

Failure sucks. And when we face it, our choices ultimately come down to two:

1. Try again.
2. Bail.

Sometimes trying again is appropriate. Sometimes quitting is appropriate. The trick is to figure out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

So here, in non-random order, are my six steps to processing and overcoming failure.

STEP 1: Determine the reasons for your failure.

You’ve got to know your enemy.

Why did you fail?

Answer that question. Be honest. This is no time to worry about looking like a jerk for making excuses. Go ahead and make excuses, but call them “reasons” instead. If you were sick, that’s a reason you might have failed at a physical endeavor. If you didn’t have enough money, that’s a reason a business might have flopped. If you simply weren’t in good enough shape to run a race, that’s probably the reason you didn’t win.

A “reason” becomes an “excuse” when you mentally claim victory in a magical, nonexistent world where the excuse didn’t get in your way and, as a result, you didn’t fail. We’re not doing that in this step. We’re admitting we failed, but figuring out why.

(Spoiler: Later on, you get to try again after the reason/excuse is eliminated… or you get to accept the failure regardless of the reason/excuse. You don’t get to say, “I failed because of X, so without X, I wouldn’t fail.” That’s claiming victory in fairy world. That’s where a reason becomes a bullshit excuse. Don’t do that. It’s a douchebag move.)

While you’re at it, go ahead and also list the reasons you felt like hell after failing. Knowing your emotional triggers will help you separate fact from gut reactions.

In my case, here are the reasons I believe I failed at my half Ironman:

1. I was riding the wrong kind of bike.
2. It was a really windy day.

Remember, I’m not making excuses here. I’m not saying, “I consider myself to have won this if I mentally eliminate the wind and give myself a better bike.” I’m simply analyzing the reasons I believe things went sour. If I don’t know these things, I can’t attempt to correct them.

See, 99.99% of people who do triathlons (especially the longer ones) use a road bike or a tri bike. I, because I’m new to the sport and not eager to spend $2k yet on a fancy-ass bike, decided to fit the hybrid bike I already owned with slick tires and use that. I knew I’d be slower, but I didn’t care about placing well… and besides, I’d trained on that bike for months.

What I hadn’t counted on was how bad a hybrid is in the wind, meaning that my two reasons for failure were working together synergistically. We had 20 MPH winds on the day of my tri, and sitting upright on a hybrid (instead of low on a road bike) was like putting a sail to the wind. Add to that the increased rolling friction and the extra weight and you’ve got a disaster. The people on road bikes were having a hard time, but I, on my hybrid, was being lapped on a 19-mile course. That’s a huge difference.

STEP 2: Imagine trying again while mentally removing the reasons for your failure, and determine your level of confidence under those revised conditions.

Still being careful not to cross the line between objective analysis and douchebaggy excuse-making, ask yourself, “If I changed or eliminated the things I just listed, do I think I could do it?”

You don’t get to tell people that you could do it. You only get to figure out how confident YOU feel that you could do it.

In my case, the answer to “Do I think I could do it on a better bike and/or with less wind?” was a big yes.

If you’re a big yes, begin working on convincing yourself.

I had three big reasons why I felt certain I could do it under those revised conditions:

1. Failing was a total surprise.
The biggest reason this failure hurt me so bad — much worse than the many failures I have regularly in the course of doing business — was because I didn’t see it coming. It honestly never occurred to me that I might fail. Mentally I was there.

And why was I so there mentally, you ask? Well…

2. I had done much harder workouts many times.
On Sunday, I dropped out after riding 37 miles. Combined with the swim, this meant that I was quitting after about 3.5 hours of effort. That’s a long time, but I’d done several workouts longer than 5 hours in recent weeks, including a 100-mile bike ride (on the hybrid bike!) that took me almost 7. I’d swum 1.2 miles several times. I’d ridden over 56 miles repeatedly. I’d done back-to-back “brick” workouts where I did one sport right after the other. All of this together made me feel like Sunday’s conditions of bike + wind + hills (did I forget to mention the hills?) were a sort of perfect storm of ineptitude that was unlikely to repeat itself.

3. I’d never quit before.
The worst part of all of this was I hadn’t been pulled off the course. I hadn’t sustained an injury. I simply became incapable of going further, and had had to make the conscious decision to throw in the towel. But as a convincing reason to move forward, this had punch because I have never before quit a long run or bike ride or any endurance activity because it was hard. I’ve quit if I’ve felt an injury, but never before due to fatigue. And the fact that it had never happened before in workouts up to 7 hours long meant that it wasn’t terribly likely to happen again as long as I was uninjured.

With all of my data gathered, my objective opinion (well, as objective as can be expected) was that given the right bike and at least reasonable winds, I could do it.

STEP 3: Determine if it’s worth trying again.

Seth Godin’s short book The Dip is all about knowing when and which endeavors to quit. Quitting isn’t bad in and of itself. Quitting things that matter because they’re hard is cowardly, but quitting pointless things that consume energy you could use better elsewhere is wise. You just need to know which applies to your situation.

My answer wasn’t straightforward. It involved asking a very hard question: Why do I do this stuff, anyway?

I didn’t hope to win. I didn’t think I’d ever get a medal, or a plaque. When I did an earlier, shorter triathlon with Joel Runyon, we hadn’t even paid attention to the closing ceremony. We just ate and left. I’m not in it for the glory, the fame, the money, or the adulation or respect.

This is still something I’m figuring out, but as near as I can tell, I do it because I want to find the edges of my own abilities. I want to know what it feels like to push until it’s uncomfortable, because I think that your life’s edges are where you learn what your life is all about.

Which meant, basically, that I was doing it to see if I could do it.

So if I knew I could do it, I could let myself off the hook and not actually repeat the half Ironman. But how can you know if you can do something you haven’t done? I could feel confident, yes. But I couldn’t KNOW.

I had two choices: Quit and be satisfied with not knowing, or remove the obstacles and try again… and know for sure, one way or the other.

The answer to this is simple. I want to know.

STEP 4: Decide.

The inelegant way to sum up this step is: Shit or get off the pot.

In other words, if you determine that you want to try again, book it and do it. If you decide to quit, make your peace with that decision and quit. Don’t stay in no-man’s land.

For me, I decided that I’m going to do it again, on my own if I have to. I don’t get to waffle. I get to find a date, get it together, and do it. Find out. Then let it go.

The worst thing you can do with a failure is to leave it hanging, undecided and unfinished, like an open wound. Either heal the arm or amputate it; don’t simply ignore it and let it fester. That’s what Heroin Bob did in SLC Punk, and you saw how much it fucked him up.

The following two steps apply only if you’ve decided to forge on and try again.

STEP 5: Remove the reasons for your failure.

In step 1, you listed the reasons for your failure. In this step, you get to mitigate, remove, lessen, and overcome those reasons.

Failed because you were out of shape? Get in shape.

Failed because you ran out of money? Get more money.

Failed because you went right when you should have gone left? Remember to go left.

In my case, I’d failed because I was using a heavy, upright hybrid bike with wide tires, and because it was an extremely windy day. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I don’t think my physical capability was a damning factor.

Solution? Somehow, I need to get my hands on a proper road bike. Oh, and I want to be sure that I don’t reschedule my event during a hurricane.

STEP 6: Just do it.

Try again. Try version 2.0.

If you fail again, run through the steps again. Maybe you’ll want to try a third time, or maybe it simply isn’t worth it.

Each time, it’s up to you.

And me? I’m going to do my half Ironman again. Soon. I still don’t totally understand why this matters to me, but it does, and the cost at this point is low. Really, my only cost is the time it takes to try one more time, and in light of that, I’m not ready to stand up yet, after all this effort, and decide consciously to quit.

If I fail the next time, using a road bike on a less windy day, I’ll have to go through this process again and — without a bike or the wind to blame for my failure — will only be able to conclude that I’ve failed because it’s simply beyond me.

I hope that won’t happen. I don’t believe it will.

Wish me luck.

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote the above on Tuesday.

Wednesday night, I drove out to a bike shop an hour away and rented a road bike for $50.

Thursday, four days after my big failure, I tried again. I made my own half Ironman — an unofficial combination of 42 1/4 laps in a 25-yard pool, a 56-mile bike loop, and a 13.1 mile run loop — and I had another go at it.

It’s now Friday night, and I’ve just made final edits to the above and written this little P.S.

This time it didn’t beat me. And I feel much better.


Comments

  1. Kirsty Hall says:

    Excellent post, Johnny – this shit is so important to understand. I’m bookmarking this one for the next time I fail.

  2. Dr. Pete says:

    Sorry to hear that, but yeah, it happens. I had my first 5K in over 2 years last Sunday. I’ve been training for almost 9 months, really sticking to it, and just beat my treadmill PR (26:35). Five minutes into the race, something just went wrong – I finished, but at 32:05, 5 full minutes worse than my goal (and 5 minutes for a 5K is a lot).

    The course was hilly, the crowds were bad, I hadn’t done any road training in months, and my relatively minor heart condition (that never kicks in during exercise) kicked in. I immediately started the usual round of questioning my training regimen, my manhood, my upbringing, etc.

    Then I just kind of stopped. I don’t race for the races. I race to motivate me to go to the gym and stay in shape. I’m 41, and I’m probably in the best shape of my life. I went to the gym – I did the work. Then, I had a bad day. It sucks, and I wanted to do better, but it didn’t erase all the work. If I had skipped the gym, just showed up, and had a great race, would that have been better? I would’ve been impressed with myself, but I’d have missed the whole point.

    So, I quit shopping for new shoes, regrouped, and went back to the gym. I’ll pick a less hilly course in the spring, train all winter, and when the weather improves, get out on the roads a bit. Then, I’ll try again. What else can you do?

    • Johnny says:

      There’s also the phenomenon of “just a bad day.” I’ve run into it before with long workouts, where things just don’t go well. I think that was part of my issue this time too. A constellation of negative factors.

      Keep at it, Pete! Winter can be a great time to train, IMO.

  3. Jess says:

    “Your life’s edges are where you learn what your life is all about.”

    Beautiful. All of it, but that line is positively brilliant. 🙂

    Rock on, Man.

    • Johnny says:

      You’re going to love the post that’s already percolating in my head. It’s all about this. I plan on also quoting Trent Reznor and Johnny Cash.

  4. Hey JBT,
    I know that with physical goals like a triathalon there has to be some mental and physical preparedness or the body will not make it. I am a “hard worker” type which means I usually neglect other aspects like proper rest and nutrition.

    If I keep this up for too long I eventually crash. I found that some discipline works for me like knowing when to say when.

    It’s cool that you made your own mini-triathalon and succeeded.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, me too… I have to make sure I rest and eat well, or I’ll drive myself into the ground and forget that stuff. Luckily I’ve gotten good at making sure I do it!

  5. Hugh Anderson says:

    In your postscript it sounds like you answered the question of whether or not you could do it. You created your own version of the triathalon, and you completed it. So now is the question, “Can I do it during a officially sanctioned event?” Why does it have to be an official event if you yourself admit you aren’t interested in competing directly with other athletes or even attending the post-race ceremonies?

    You even admit you don’t understand why you care about these events – that’s kind of a big deal and needs to be answered. Perhaps you are a cardio addict, both for chemical reasons (runners high) and/or as a form of escapism (the freedom of being able to “just bike” or “just run” for hours and hours without having to worry about the stresses of the “real world” can turn into a form of escape ).

    Also, you claim the cost is low, but are you considering the hundreds of hours of training neede?. That in and of itself is a high cost if there ever was one. I would also add the potential cost to your health – excessive amounts of cardio can quickly tip the risk/reward ratio towards overall decline in health through the effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels, lack of proper recovery, etc etc.

    • Johnny says:

      I think we might have had a disconnect here… the PS was definitely me accomplishing the version of the goal that I cared about — meaning that I wanted to do the event, not do it with an official timer and race officials and a number pinned to my chest. So I DON’T want to do an official event. I’ve done all I care about for right now.

      As to the cost, I meant “As of right now, would be the cost to just do my own version of the event?” Because it’s “as of now,” I’d already put in the training. The only difference between quitting and trying again was the actual trying again… I didn’t need to train further because I felt I was already sufficiently trained, I didn’t need to pay because I didn’t care about finding an official event, and so on. The only cost at that moment was the actual doing of the event.

  6. the muskrat says:

    Do you think you would’ve rented the better bike and done this thing again so quickly were it not for your blog and online persona? Regardless of the answer to that question, I think living your days in a manner that will be worth writing about afterward is a great way to go through life, and that includes triumphs AND failures.

    • Johnny says:

      Yeah, I would have for sure. Only a few people knew I was doing the H.I.M. before I did it… I didn’t make a public announcement. I could have quietly failed and said nothing. This really is about impressing myself, not impressing anyone else.

  7. David Bourne says:

    Thanks for the honest, humbling post.

    I hate races up to 3/4 of the way through. The stress of unknowns, the other racers, the drive, the 4:30 am; they all can add up to a ton of mental obstacles for me.

    Once 3/4 is done, I can relax and enjoy it. Unless I’m puking.

    But I agree, that slow bike really kicked your ass. Noob mistake.

    My worst noob mistake was saying “oh, this tiny squirt of gel will give me the extra boost to do this swim. I’m such a smart tri-man.”

    Well, my heart-rate went through the roof and I almost drowned (cold water+race buzz/anxiety+gel = barely being able to float). Noob.

    I can’t bring myself to even sign up for a 1/2 ironman.

    So you got that goin’ for ya. Which is nice.

  8. Ted kolovos says:

    You know, what you said about leaving a failure hanging is very true I believe. You have to establish some type of mental closure with failures or they can linger inside your head for years.

    Sometimes it can be as easy as just accepting whatever it was that you failed at and just saying “I don’t need to think about that anymore” and happily move on. Other times the failure may represent deeper negative feelings that you may not be aware of or understand and those are the situations that can challenge you because sooner or later you have to confront the root cause of those feelings.

    I like the process you described and I think it’s very useful:)

    • Johnny says:

      Right. I think that accepting it is fine (“I choose to not spend more time on this and will admit that it has beaten me”) and I think that actively making a plan to overcome it and succeed is fine.

      The problem comes when we do one of two things:

      1. Let a hanging, lingering failure beat you up… i.e., you’re not okay with failing, but you never let go or try again, or

      2. Claim a mental victory without having a true victory, which is what happens when people use excuses. Me saying, “I would have been able to do it if not for my bike and the wind” would have been like that… I’m not truly admitting defeat if I add caveats about the wind/bike being at fault, and am actually claiming an imagined victory that might have occurred under different circumstances but didn’t.

      The first is soul-crushing and the second is bullshit. Neither is honest or kind to yourself.

  9. LOVE the postscript. Props to you sir 😀

    I inspired by the “Sometimes it can just be a bad day” thing — that always feels like a copout and “making excuses” to me.

    There are at least 3 powerful, positive reasons you can bring failure into your life, that are NOT AT ALL random.

    So I will add Reasons Failure Is A Blessing, & reasons you May Have Created This Failure As Part Of Your Success:

    1. It offers you the opportunity to define + decide Who You Are when faced with it.

    2. It may cause you a deep wound that you’d “never wish on anyone”, thus leading you toward your primary service/value contribution in life.

    (Example, I was labeled a gifted child with an IQ of 184 when I was in grade 6 – I then spent 20+ years creatively failing. Now I teach others creative success.”

    3. It may be a result of hidden, subconscious belief and behavior patterns that are really important to analyze/transform — NOW. Failure is a sign-post pointing the way.

    So yeah, UNDERSTANDING failure can help a lot.

    • Johnny says:

      I totally agree… and this is right along the same lines as “bad shit” being a blessing as well. Sometimes things come into your life that seem terrible, but they’re honing experiences. I imagine failure falls right into that same category.

      184? Dude. Huge.

      • Amen bro 🙂 Completely agree. Turning bullshit into goldmines, a great time-tested recipe for success. 🙂

        lol, yeah, I used to be really shy about it, first thinking that “subjective tests designed by disconnected people” were bascially meaningless. Then I felt it was arrogant to talk about or whatever.

        Now I just let it be. It is what is, I bring it up when it feels relevant/helpful. I let people think what they want about it… it just is.

        lol. People rock and we all have our unique points 🙂

  10. Ralph says:

    Ballsy. Awesome. Love how you did your own iron man and never gave into defeat.

    Succes – never permanent. Neither is defeat. Kick ass and take names.

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