Eisenbud's Odyssey: On failure

Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is: 'repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results.' The same can be said about failure.

Albert Einstein 311 (photo credit: Al. Aumuller / Library of Congress)
Albert Einstein 311
(photo credit: Al. Aumuller / Library of Congress)
I have experienced failure in virtually every aspect of my life. From the professional to the interpersonal to the intellectual, and even the spiritual, you name it and I’ve failed at it – sometimes in epic proportions. However, I have come to embrace failure as the greatest teacher I have ever known, and it has paid off considerably.
Of course, failure in and of itself is useless and self-defeating unless the lessons it imparts are learned and heeded. Indeed, I have a theory that there are two kinds of people in life: those who learn from their mistakes, and those who don’t.
The former group is virtually destined for a degree of success at some point, while the latter is doomed to face their own Groundhog Day of disappointments until they finally adjust their behavior accordingly.
I’m sure Einstein would agree that success and failure are based on a basic mathematical principle, whereby success is largely predicated on one’s capacity to learn from – and not repeat – the same mistakes.
That said, there are few things more maddening to me than watching someone repeat the same self-defeating mistakes over and over again without a hint of self-awareness, all the while blissfully ignorant that they are essentially self-destructing.
I have watched countless people of all stripes – from loved ones to annoying co-workers and acquaintances – repeat clearly self-harming patterns without a clue, as if on cue.
I can always see it coming from a mile away, and it’s like watching an obese man eating a fried Twinkie, drinking a Slurpee and asking why he’s so fat.
Hell, I had a similar mentality for longer than I care to remember, and it wasn’t pretty.
SELF-AWARENESS is an art form that few master. Those who do, however, often go on to great heights professionally, personally and spiritually – even the less talented among us. They do this by constantly reaching higher levels of development that learning invites and failure prevents.
It’s a very simple equation, known as a learning curve.
Conversely, hyper-awareness can backfire, leading to fear, which leads to self-doubt, which in turn leads to missed opportunities – inevitably resulting in stagnation.
To be sure, fear is to success what body odor is to dating: a deal breaker.
In fact, I would argue that the fear of failure leads to more disappointments in life than failure itself.
In one of the most popular columns I have written, called “The road not taken,” I pointed out that the greatest regret among patients on their deathbeds is not having had the courage to pursue their dreams, which definitively includes taking calculated risks.
Few things are sadder than seeing someone at the end of their journey in life wishing they had done it differently.
Done it better.
FORTUNATELY, THERE is a solution for those who independently cannot alter self-damaging behaviors. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and may be the most practical, simple and effective application of psychology ever devised.
One of my oldest and closest friends, a 38-year-old tenured Harvard professor of psychology named Matthew K. Nock, is one of CBT’s leading practitioners. Matt is one of the smartest guys I know, and he taught me about it over 10 years ago when we were roommates in New Haven, Connecticut, while he was getting his PhD at Yale and I was working as a police and criminal courts reporter for an area daily newspaper.
Matt believed that Freudian theory created a circular, never-ending and costly conversation and dependency between patients and clinicians, while CBT addressed core problems directly, quickly and efficiently.
He said that therapists who were truly looking after their patients’ best interests would not prioritize endless, tangential and expensive talk-therapy sessions that led nowhere – but rather would utilize CBT, which while less long-lasting, got to the root of the problem.
It makes perfect sense: Instead of talking to a therapist at prohibitively expensive rates – indefinitely – about everything under the sun, why not utilize a laser-like focus on the problems that need to be addressed?
In short, it’s akin to the difference between using chemo to kill all the cells in the body, versus targeted surgery to fix the actual problem directly. Clearly, the latter option is more logical and preferable.
I have become such a supporter of CBT that for one of Matt’s birthday’s I made him a custom T-shirt that reads: “Freud sux. Cognitive behavioral therapy forever!” (Nerd humor.)
Over 10 years later, he tells me that he still wears it. That’s dedication.
I HAVE found that Israelis may be among the greatest examples – and adherents – of the philosophy of proactively learning from and addressing failure, and adjusting course, as their learning curve is literally a matter of life and death in their existential crisis.
To be sure, they practice CBT with outstanding acumen.
The IDF doesn’t have the luxury of repeating mistakes. It’s Darwinism in real time – requiring an exceptional learning curve, taking important calculated risks and not allowing fear to prevent important missions from being accomplished.
In many ways, the philosophy and skills perfected by the IDF are invaluable and transferable in virtually every aspect of leading a proactive, successful everyday life.
This is one of the reasons I stick around these parts.
AGAIN, IN the end, the difference between those who fail and succeed in life can be divided into the categories of those who learned from failure, and those who didn’t.
Failure is largely inevitable – but how you react to it is entirely subjective.
Believe me when I say I learned this the hard way.
However, if you become a student of it, you will undoubtedly succeed far more than if you ignore the lessons failure teaches.
And while eliminating fear entirely is foolish, mitigating its impact on following through on important undertakings is essential to success.
Don’t be one of those defeated people who echo Marlon Brando’s tragic character Terry Malloy’s infamous refrain in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a contender.”
Learn, adjust and be a contender!
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