When we want to learn about what works in life, taking a look at what’s not working offers many lessons. When you try something and it doesn’t work, you learn from the experience. Sometimes, it’s smart to leave a frustrating endeavour and try something else rather than discouraging yourself in a hopeless project.
If the challenge is learning something new, sometimes you keep trying and, eventually, master the skill. Sometimes, though, you give up.
There is no shame in giving up. Several times I’ve enrolled in classes but have been unable to master even the basic information.
My experience with tai chi is an example. I’ve signed up at my gym, at a private studio, and at a community night class but have never mastered even the basic moves. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always had difficulty distinguishing right from left; perhaps it’s because of chronic ankle tendonitis; possibly, my mind/body coordination is not capable of absorbing this complex art.
Coding and meditation are other examples. I’ve taken classes in coding with no success except to learn that neither HTML nor CSS, fit with my thinking style. Even writing simple code is tedious. As for meditation, my so-called ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t slow down enough to experience the benefits. I can focus on breathing in a yoga class but sitting cross-legged on a cushion with candles and incense makes me stress about causing a fire rather than bringing calm and self-awareness!
Learn from Mistakes
Mark Twain famously said, “Learn from the mistakes of others — you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Unfortunately, the bruises from personal mistakes give the real-life lessons. Learning from mistakes means that we change our behaviour. Perhaps we clarify the values and truths that matter most in life. But, mistakes become teachers only if the knowledge from a failure is applied in other situations.
Negative emotions arise when a mistake causes failure with something important. Mistakes can hurt, shame and frighten us; they cause worries, regrets and insecurities. Our brains need more time to process a negative emotional reaction. During the processing time, self-judgements often arise that lead to a retreat from difficult situations; they drag you down.
More positively, mistakes can be re-framed as experiences that add to self-knowledge. By understanding experiences, analyzing mistakes, managing emotions, and applying this knowledge to other situations, we can better make better decisions about future behaviour.
Learning from what is working
While mistakes are good teachers, focusing on mistakes can lead to a downward spiral. Most therapists and life coaches use approaches that build on strengths by focusing on attributes, talents and skills that define us.
Analyzing what you’re good at provides clues to improve what’s not working. Perhaps doing something in a different way will lead to a better outcome. For example, when stuck with a writing project, instead of struggling and muddling, I leave the section that is creating difficulty and work on the summary. Summing-up gives a fresh perspective and a new look at what created difficulty. By changing the context, a new approach usually opens and the writing proceeds.
Pausing to look at a problem as a whole is another strategy that often helps in finding a solution. Perhaps the attempted solution failed because the problem wasn’t defined or the desired outcome wasn’t identified. Perhaps you’ve mastered a similar problem in the past. The old saying, ‘past success is the best predictor of future success’ encourages appreciation of strengths. Putting strengths into action might involve taking enough time to appreciate the many good things that already work for you.
Stop Doing What’s Not Working
Learning something new and complex takes concentration and repetition coupled with a passion to make it part of your life. It should fulfill a deep personal need. It’s obvious neither tai chi nor coding was a life-changing passion for me. It was a relief to realize that I could stop trying to learn these skills without feeling that I’d failed. I continue to see myself as a competent life-long learner.
I’ve heard from friends who were constantly on weight loss diets that giving up on extreme programs and eating sensibly helped them to live ‘normally’. Sometimes they lost weight without a diet! They learned to enjoy life without worry about every bite of food consumed.
Many people take great risks when they decide that something is not working for them. Sometimes careers are abandoned or marriages are ended. Sometimes, tough medical decisions, such as abandoning treatments, are made. Such decisions are difficult as the risks and benefits of are consequential. Mistakes fall into a different category than choosing to stop trying to learn tai chi.
Continuing along a chosen path that is not working is counter-productive. Mistakes don’t need to be repeated but different possibilities should be considered. The inner work of figuring out what’s not working is difficult but liberating. It frees energy for other pursuits, gives confidence, and paves the way for learning things that matter in life.
I’m interested in reader experiences. Have you abandoned frustrating projects? Have you walked away from life situations that were not working? What did you learn?