Retirement Happiness — Learn from what’s not working

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 what's not working
Learn from what’s not working — photo courtesy of dylan nolte

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?




8 Replies to “Retirement Happiness — Learn from what’s not working”

  1. Doing something that is not working for you or does not bring any benefit or joy to you is nothing but a waste of your precious time. Retired life is the last phase of your life when happiness is your goal to achieve, be it through travelling or being at your home with family.

    1. Well said! Unfortunately, sometimes I persist even when an activity brings frustration rather than happiness. I’m getting better at recognizing what’s not working. As I get older, I’m also better at doing things without worrying about achieving excellence.

  2. Very helpful information and reminders in your post! Thank you! I’m coming out of my winter doldrums (I hope) and want to do some of the things you mentioned, especially stop doing things that are not working. I recently gave up worrying about my weight and decided just to eat when I’m hungry, eat what I want, and walk whenever I feel like it. My golden years should be filled with enjoyable meals and time outdoors. I’m almost to the point where I can stop wanting to work for pay, and just take each day as it comes without a schedule. That is REALLY hard for me, but I’m working on it!

    1. Giving up the ‘shoulds’ is always a challenge especially when the ‘shoulds’ hold you back from doing the things that make life enjoyable. From your comment, I’m sensing that you are about to enter another phase of retirement that will bring more time for doing what brings pleasure including eating foods you love and spending time outdoors. Personally, I can’t wait for the end of this Ontario winter to spend more time enjoying nature. My mental health improves when I’m able to walk in the woods behind our house — even 15 minutes changes my outlook!

  3. We like photography and brought ourselves a 2nd hand SLR and some new lenses, but in reality we soon found that we preferred using our compact cameras and that we are more happy snappers when doing something else (e.g. holidays, walking, visiting National trust properties) than keen photographers looking for that special shot. We will still occasionally take the big camera out with its lenses and special rucksack but in general it is the smaller cameras that we use. Similarly I was set on becoming an expert in the digitial darkroom, but when I realised that I simply wasn’t reading the magazines with any enthusiasm, and had a few years of backlog, despite having a very preferential price we cancelled the subscription – that was a relief – I didn’t know an unread magazine could nag, but I discovered they could 🙂

    1. Your comment rings true for me. I’ve purchased a fancy SLR but seldom use it. It’s heavy and cumbersome; it makes me feel that I should take special photos. Also, I need to use my reading glasses to adjust settings when I use it. My compact camera does what I need and it is the ‘go to’ choice as is the camera on my iPhone. When I wrote the post, I forgot about the decision to leave behind aspirations of becoming a master photographer!
      Thanks for your comment.
      Be well,

  4. I’m not sure why I believed that, once retired, I’d excel at the things I never had time for- or mastered- during my earlier years. Now in my mid 60s, I realize there’s only a finite amount of time left. I embrace experiences that bring joy or lead me toward a more complete understanding of life and the universe. I try not to sweat the small stuff. Because all the rest IS small stuff.

    1. Too many of us believe that the only way to enjoy something is to excel. Whatever happened to doing things badly for pure enjoyment? Your decision to embrace experiences that bring joy rather than seeking perfection will bring more happiness. The things that make life beautiful and the people who count in our lives are often less than perfect yet, we embrace them. Let’s embrace the small stuff and fill ourselves with ordinary pleasures.
      Be well,

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