Reframing failure

picture of brandy snap recipe
I didn’t take a photo of the actual dessert but it looked just as appetising as this.

It was Moz’s turn to make dinner on Sunday. He got bored through the afternoon and decided to make us brandy snap bowls for dessert. I’m very happy with him being bored. He should be bored more often.

He used a recipe from a very fancy dessert recipe book that I was given one Christmas. I love the book because it also has the recipe for crumpets in it and I had always wanted to know how to make them. Everything in the book is fancy, or is at least presented as being fancy.

Moz changed the recipe because he used up the end of our golden syrup bottle and didn’t find the new bottle that was hiding in the pantry. So as well as golden syrup he used honey and strawberry syrup. I tell you, they were delicious brandy snaps. Really yummy.

They reminded me of one of the big failures in my life.

Way back when we were training as missionaries with YWAM we were living in a house with 14 people. One of the members of our household was leaving so we threw them a party. I was in charge of the food. (I realise now that this was a bad idea.)

I decided to make shortbread, which is something I can make quite well. The problem was that the kitchen scales in our very poor household just didn’t work. If you placed the butter on them lightly they didn’t register the weight at all. If you slammed the butter on then they registered a lot of weight – much more than was actually there.

I hadn’t done a lot of baking at this point so I just did the best I could. It turns out that I put in way waaaaay more butter than these shortbread biscuits needed. When I checked them in the oven they had spread out and covered the biscuit tray. They were wafer thin, and bubbling.

I couldn’t cope. I just ran upstairs to my room and cried. But Moz coped. He got the bubbling ‘biscuits’ out of the oven and scraped them off the pan. He wrapped each one around the handle of a broom and made them into brandy snaps. We filled them with cream or custard (I can’t quite remember) and served them to the party.

And that’s where I learned something about failure.

‘Who made the brandy snaps?’

‘Can I have the recipe for these brandy snaps?’

‘Oooh Ruth, these are yummy!’

Crazy.

Sometimes our failures can turn out to be great successes. As shortbread biscuits the baking was a complete and utter failure, but as brandy snaps an outrageous success.

I don’t like failing very much.

Ok, I don’t like failing at all.

But I’m learning to reframe failure. Learning to look at each attempt as an experiment. Learning to learn from the failure and maybe to turn it around and make it a successful ‘something else’.

When my kids were small, like all kids, they would give me their drawings. I learned a lot from that as well. The drawings were not perfect. Heck, they weren’t recognisable as anything. But I loved the drawings. I cherished them. I kept them. I still have a selection stored with my other memorabilia.

Until then, I couldn’t really see how my pitiful attempts would be worth anything to anyone. But looking at my children’s pictures I could see how God looks at our attempts, our tries, and loves us for them. Even if they don’t live up to our own ideas of perfection. Even if they fall short by a long way. Just the fact that we have tried means something. Means everything.

One of my very favourite of all time books is The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge. One of her characters tries hard to help people, but fails often and is very aware of his failures. But we the readers (with our omnipotent point of view) get to see how everything he thinks of as a failure is actually a success from a different point of view.

Reading that book helped me see that I don’t know the big picture and that I need to sometimes not worry about the outcomes of my actions and trust that God has it under control.

So failure. How do I cope with it?

I probably still head to the bedroom to cry for a while. But I am trying to give much more weight to the fact that I made an attempt at all.

And I’m trying to learn everything I can from the failure.

And, finally, I’m realising that sometimes it is possible to turn failed shortbread into successful brandy snaps.

How about you? Do you have a failure that ended up being a success? How do you cope when things seem to have gone completely wrong?

 

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What makes you a Success?

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I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago but didn’t put it up because it’s January and EVERYONE is writing about goals and resolutions and so on right now. But I’m going to post it anyway, because it’s what I’m thinking about as I start this year. My birthday is in January, so as well as the big New Years Day thing, I also have the next year of my life to think about. January for me is all about goals, dreams, plans for the year ahead.

And what it means to have those plans succeed.

Success. What does it mean? More importantly, what does it mean to you?

How would you define a successful year? What makes you successful in your career? What does success mean in your family?

I’m a bit of a list addict. When the weekend comes I like to write a list of everything I want to accomplish in the two days. My list will have bigger tasks like ‘change the bed linen’ and smaller tasks like ‘clean up the kitchen’ (alright that can also be a big task – it depends on the day), and even hobby tasks like ‘read book’ or ‘bake cookies’.

If I cross all the tasks off the list by the end of the weekend I judge it to be a wildly successful weekend. But what if I don’t manage to get to all the tasks? Is the weekend a failure? Am I a failure?

I listened to a podcast interview by Steve Laube a literary agent, about success. He was talking about how writers define success and how it can be a dangerous thing. He said that some define success by sales numbers, ‘I’ll be successful once I sell 50,000 books,’ or by income, ‘I’ll be successful when I make $100,000.’ But, he says, what if you only sell 45,000 books? What if you only make $98,000? Are you a failure? If you haven’t ticked over that success milestone does that mean you have failed?

His point was that it is better to define success as the impact that you have on people – that even if you impact one person’s life for the better by your writing, you have therefore been a success.

We can apply that to our general lives too. We might never be millionaires, we might not ever be able to be Prime Minister, or a movie star, or the CEO of our corporation, or any of these high-impact people, but if we can impact the lives around us in a positive way on a day to day basis then we can also say that we are successful.

I agree. Money or fame or power are not good measures of success. They are more like gaping bottomless pits that suck you in and suck those around you into the abyss as well. At least, that’s what it looks like from the outside. I’ve never really been close enough to find out.

So yes, doing good to others, spreading the light however we can, reaching out and making anyone’s life better, that is a good measure of success but there’s a risk with this kind of thinking.

The risk is that we stop trying. We can be tempted to not push ourselves, not try hard, not grow, because all we’re doing is just trying to help the people around us, trying to shed light, and isn’t that enough? Just being a nice person? If that’s the definition of success then why bother training? Why bother learning? Why bother developing our artistic skills? Why bother with academic excellence?

But I believe excellence is something worth reaching for. Learning and growing and improving is a life-long journey and if we stop doing any of that then we stop living. Or at least we stop living a life filled with any richness.

My dream for my writing career is that I can make a living by what I write. That is what I think would constitute a wildly successful writing career. It is what I’m aiming for. My big shining city on a hill that I’m toiling towards. This is not something that I expect to tick off my list any time soon, but it’s the thing that will keep me striving for excellence, will keep me training and working.

And failure in my writing career is defined solely by this:

  • I fail if I stop writing.

So in between the failure and the big shining city there is a wide plain of moderate success:

  • I am successful if I put aside the time to write.
  • I am successful if I hone my skills, train in character development or descriptive writing.
  • I am successful if I bring a book to publication.
  • I am not a failure unless I fail to do that which I am called to do.

I think you can see from this list though that the goals that are on the success pathway are goals that are within my control. Goals that depend on me, not on external forces. Goals like exercising every day, rather than a goal of losing 10 kg which has a lot of factors you may not be able to control. Goals like mastering that piano piece or practicing five hours a week, not goals like winning Australian Idol. It is easy to fail if your definition of success depends on something that you cannot have a hope of controlling. Some people call these systems, not goals. I’ll probably write another post on this in the future because I think it needs some unpacking but just bear it in mind right now. When I talk about never failing, I’m talking about reaching for goals that depend on your own input, not externally defined goals.

Success and failure are not binary concepts. Success is not an on-off switch.

Rather there is a continuum from failure (which I think is only final once you’re dead) to wild and absolute success. And every step you take towards your shining city is a successful step. Every setback is just that, a setback. If you pick up and keep going, you have not failed.

 

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments. What do you see as success? What do you think about goals? What are your goals for the new year?

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year again. The time that we all make our goals and resolutions and swear that this time we will stick to them. Or we laugh at everyone making goals and resolutions and swear that you’ll never catch us making such stupid arbitrary-date-related promises to ourselves.

I found myself not wanting to write down goals at all today. No resolutions, no goals for January, no goals for the week. I didn’t want anything written down at all. And I couldn’t figure out why for a minute but I worked it out in the end.

I didn’t want to write them down, because if I didn’t achieve them, didn’t cross them off the list or give them a big tick, then I would feel that I had failed. And I hate feeling like I’ve failed.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

For some people writing the goals is fine, but they don’t want to tell anyone their goals because if someone asks, ‘how is that project going?’ that’s when they will feel that sense of failure.

But we have to have goals.

For some of us goals are given by our workplace or by our school and we can use those to track your progress. But if you don’t have that, then you need to come up with goals yourself. If you don’t have any goals it’s a road to depression I think – you’re not going anywhere and it doesn’t feel good.

This morning the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have goals. I had plenty of goals for January floating around in my head. I just didn’t want to commit them to paper. I didn’t want to make a target that I would fail to reach. I didn’t want it written there in black and white.

But the problem with that was that the goals swirling around my head were nebulous, they were unformed and shapeless. While I removed the risk of failure, I also removed the feeling of success. And I actually think that without those concrete goals written down I would have a sense of failure anyway, a fear of something I’d missed.

So what did I do?

It’s taking me a while to process this but I have been reading over and over again in the last year an amazing concept. Amazing. I tell you, it’s life changing.

You can change your goals.

You can adjust them.

If you are working through the month of January and you find that you’re not able to achieve that ambitious list that you had at the beginning of the month, that’s fine. If you had something to aim for, you got half-way there and you couldn’t quite summon up the energy or strength to push through to the end, that’s ok.

Change the goal.

Change the deadline.

It’s ok. It’s fine. It’s not failure.

It’s just adjustment.

That’s part of the process. You make goals. Set them somewhere. And as you move towards them you chart your progress and make adjustments.

It has to work this way because let’s face it, life isn’t straight-forward. You could be moving really well towards a goal and then get the flu. Or someone close to you passes away. Or, on the brighter side, a friend comes to visit from overseas and you need to make time to visit with them. Any number of interruptions and stumbling blocks can get in the way of a goal and there’s no way you can know beforehand what’s going to happen.

So my suggestion this new year is that you make goals, goals that are appropriate to what you can achieve right now, but hold them lightly, and continually adjust.

And may we all feel like we’re making progress as we head through 2018.