One thing I think most people on earth have in common is that we have all experienced failure. And it sucks. The amount of suckitude experienced increases proportionally to the size of the failure. Fail to wake up on time and you are in for a hectic morning trying to get ready at a lightning pace so you can get to the office on time. That sucks. Fail to get a job offer for a dream job after a series of positive interviews? That sucks at a higher order of magnitude. Fail to take care of your health and get diagnosed with a chronic health condition? That’s another order of magnitude higher on the scale of suckitude. Have a relationship failure? You’ve reached a new level of suckitude.
I have worked with many different clients for my company over the years on projects ranging from Operational Audits (on the lower end of the stress spectrum most of the time) to onsite operational support after implementing a new core processing solution (highest level of stress). Consistently they report back that I am a calm, reassuring presence no matter how high the stress levels rise. I’m often asked how I manage to stay this calm and steady no matter the fires that are raging around us, and it all goes back to Stoicism.
Often I find that when I mention Stoicism to people, they automatically get a picture in their minds of Eeyore, the resident Gloomy Gus and cynic of The Hundred Acre Wood. People have this idea that Stoicism or being Stoic means giving up on optimism and assuming that failure is inevitable. There is a kernel of truth in this view, but it is a broad misunderstanding of Stoic Principles.
It is true that in general, Stoics do tend to look more towards failure than they do towards optimism. But this is in no way a negative thing. One of the core principles of Stoicism is learning to respond appropriately to situations based on whether you have the ability to influence or change the outcome. If you can have no influence on the outcome, you learn to accept that fact and deal with the facts going forward.
I find this remarkably freeing when I experience failure. For instance, if I’m providing onsite client support and we have a programming error that results in a particular task not working correctly, that is a form of failure. It definitely sucks. And it is stressful. But I always remember two things:
- I do not have the ability to fix or influence this programming error. Those who do will work to fix it, but I cannot influence it. Because of that simple fact, it is pointless for me to expend emotional energy worrying about it.
- The error has occurred and is now a fact; what I can influence is how I respond to these new circumstances. If we cannot complete a particular task in the normal way, it is time to find a way to complete the task using an alternative method until we can utilize the system again.
It does absolutely no good for me to go into drama mode, sending flurries of text messages and emails to the Project Manager or the Programmers screaming about how something isn’t working correctly. It does no good for the clients, who are trying to do their jobs and help their customers, to be told that there is an error and we need to wait to fix it. It does no good to feed into the rising adrenaline levels of client staff when things like this occur. Anxiety and Stress are contagious, and adding to that toxic stew accomplishes nothing.
In these situations, I focus on Rule #2 above and choose instead to focus my efforts on things that I can influence. I cannot fix the error, but I can re-direct and re-focus the attention of staff on accomplishing the task using an alternative method, even if we have to create one from scratch. This allows the staff to serve their customers and accomplish what they need to do, which has a remarkably positive effect on anxiety levels. As a result, my client interactions are much calmer than even my colleagues. There is much less drama involved and more progress is made.
I apply these rules in my personal life as well. When I suffer a failure or a setback, I take the time to mourn whatever it was that I have lost. Taking the time to experience your feelings is another principle of Stoicism after all. Then, I step back and evaluate the situation and see how I need to adjust my goals or how I can proceed given the new circumstances. I find this approach to be very liberating, because the fear of failure that can cripple you so easily disappears when you approach it from the Stoic perspective.
Check out this great post on Failure from The Daily Stoic for more on how Stoics handle failure.