I believe one of the very few things all humans feel the same way about is failure. I may well be wrong and there may be failure addict clubs somewhere, where people swap stories of glorious failures and spectacular humiliations, and plot new ones. Anything’s possible. But most of us don’t like failure. It’s evolutionary. So we’ve got coping mechanisms, some better working than others.
One popular coping mechanism is pretending the failure didn’t happen. Since I just finished writing an article on natural gas I’ll call this approach the Silent Farter on the Lift. I’m sure you’re familiar with the situation I’m talking about. It doesn’t have to be a lift. It could be any piece of public space where someone passes wind and everyone but those nearest to the blast pretend it didn’t happen, led by the windpasser. Many people take the same approach to failure. I’m pretending it didn’t happen so it didn’t happen.
Another popular mechanism is the cat approach. Cats are praised by many as cleaner animals than dogs because they always try to conceal the product of their bowel movement. It’s an instinct. They would try to do it even if there is nothing to conceal the product with. It’s the same with people who have failed at something. Their concealment tactics include changing the subject, diversion through pointing people’s attention to someone else’s failure and presenting it as bigger than their own, and pointing out their successes, which is actually a quite good tactic.
I’ve seen these approaches in action and I can’t say I’ve been particularly impressed. For me, the best-working failure management strategy is the good old sour grapes. Turning the defect into an effect. Climbing the learning curve and coming out of it with more experience and knowledge. Basically, sour grapes is about focusing on the silver lining regardless of exactly how dark the cloud is. Also, it doesn’t smell as bad as the others. Here are my tactics expressed as self-advice.
#1 Nobody died
Trite, you say? Boring maybe? Nothing new? Truth doesn’t have to be new to be the truth. Whenever you feel you’ve failed so bad you want to crawl into a hole and hide for the rest of your life, telling yourself “At least nobody died” could work wonders and change your mind about that hole.
Okay, so it might not work so well for medical professionals, air traffic controllers, soldiers or EMTs, whose job unfortunately does involve the loss of life, but for most of the rest of us it works without fail.
Your book got its seventeenth rejection? Chin up, at least nobody died.
You got blind drunk at the office party? Oh, well, nobody died.
You misspelled your own name or, worse, the agent’s name in a query letter? At least nobody died, including the agent with the misspelt name. Isn’t that nice?
Honestly, if you think about all the failures we go through on a daily basis, the number of failures this can’t be used for is minuscule on a global per-capita basis. I find this to be a lovely thought.
#2 I didn’t want it so much anyway.
The classic sour grapes tactic utilised in so many comedy sketches. If something works for a comedy sketch, if it makes people laugh, then it’s most probably a good thing, don’t you think? Also, here we have the added benefit of counting your blessings, which is always and invariably a good thing.
You want to be a bestselling author but can’t seem to be able to sell enough books? Who needs all the attention? And the book tours? And the interviews? It’s only fun at the beginning and then it becomes a drudge. Of course it does. All stars are unhappy.
You want to be rich? Do you really want to worry about your wealth all the time with so many people around who can steal it: accountants, lawyers, kids, relatives? Do you want to lose your sleep forever? All rich people are unhappy.
You want to look like a model? Starve yourself half to death, spend hours exercising and never stop because the body is a machine that needs constant maintenance? Wouldn’t you feel silly when you die of a heart attack at the age of 109 after you’ve outlived every single person that mattered to you?
#3 I don’t want anything to do with it, so don’t force it on me.
This is taking the sour grapes sentiment а level higher. You don’t just not really want something (that you actually crave). You actively and emphatically do not want it. Fame, love, money, the adoration of millions — you don’t want to have anything to do with any of it.
You feel you could write a bestseller but you are stopping yourself because what will happen with your life when you become a bestselling author? It would be a nightmare. People will recognise you on the street. They will chase you for selfies and autographs. Hell no, this bestseller is staying in your head.
You feel you could soar through the ranks and become CEO in under a year if you put your mind to it? But there’s so much stress among the top ranks it’s not worth it. Your health is more important than a career, after all. You only learn that when you lose it — the health, not the career. You’re better off in the middle ranks. You’re actually smarter than all the ambitious goal-chasers, sparing yourself the stress of working too much, sparing your exceptional talents.
You get the gist. That’s the true mastery of sour graping, especially if you manage to convince other people you really feel that way about things you actually dream about but only in the privacy of your own head.
This last level is a bit over the top for me, so I’m sticking with level #2, the classing sour graping or, as I prefer to call it, focusing on silver linings. I’ve thought about it a lot and I invariably come to the conclusion that the thing I want the most out of life is that my family is well and happy. Everything else comes second, so convincing myself I don’t want any of it that much is not so hard.
I even had the chance to test this conclusion recently, to find out if I’m trying to trick myself into thinking this way. The plane back from Italy took off in horrible turbulence. I mean this. The poor plane shook, swayed, dipped and jumped, and shook again. At one point I simply accepted the fact we were not going to make it. We were going down and that was that. My life did not pass before my eyes because hope dies last but I did have a succession of sort-of-final thoughts.
The first was that Big C and Little C are waiting for me and I was in such a rush to get back to them. Cheesy tragedy-grade thought. It’s not fair, I thought. My second thought was that I won’t write another book. Well, bugger, I thought, it’s not fair. And I haven’t even arranged with anyone to take care of the unsubmitted manuscripts. Too unfair.
After an eternity the plane climbed above the turbulence and rationality gradually resumed normal operations. But I came out with two valuable pieces of insight from that eternity when everything shook and something to the left roared like it was broken.
One, I had my priorities straight therefore I wasn’t (so much of) a narcissist. It’s unbelievable how difficult it is to know yourself. Two, I’m ready for all the sour grapes life can offer me. I’ll call them as I see them no matter how big, juicy and delicious these grapes actually are. After all, grapes can be a hazard. You can choke to death on one of them.