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How failure becomes an opportunity to inspect and adapt


The fear of failure seems to be one of the things that stops most people from achieving their goals (or even starting their goals). Fear can be crippling to some, but overcoming that fear and using failure as an opportunity for growth only brings us closer to success.

One of my favorite stoic philosophers Seneca once said:

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

Our imaginations definitely can trick us and make things seem worse than they really are. Even if we fail at something, or encounter roadblocks along the way, there is always something we can learn from failure. It just takes getting out of your mind and focusing on the reality in front of us.

This is where I mix stoicism with empiricism in my approach to dealing with failure.

I take the awareness of the Stoics to accept what happens with stride to move forward in a positive direction, and use empiricism to inspect and adapt based on my experiences. Empiricism is a philosophical theory that states that all knowledge originates in experience. The great thing about Empiricism is that this philosophical theory actually applies in my day to day work-life as a Scrum/Agile Product Owner. I also use empiricism outside of work and how I deal with roadblocks in my own personal goals. For those who don’t know what Scrum is:

Scrum is a framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value.

Scrum utilizes empiricism and the three pillars: inspection, adaptation and transparency. In my experience (not just as a Product Owner), I’ve found the best way to reach any given goal is to inspect and adapt during your progress, and even more so in the face of failure.

When we fail at something, it can be disappointing, but the way we take failure in stride, and how we can learn from it can determine our future successes. Failure gives us an opportunity to learn and grow from our mistakes to adapt and make positive changes that eventually lead to success.

Stoic philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius was also aware of how to overcome and adapt in the face of challenges and failure. He wrote:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

To summarize the great Marcus Aurelius, if there is a roadblock that is stopping you from achieving your goal, understanding what is blocking you becomes the way to growth. What stands in your way becomes your path forward. This is a very powerful statement, because it states that problems are there to help us grow and find the path out to success.

Let’s say you have set a goal to pay off $12,000 of debt within one year and you want to stick to a strict (12) month plan. You set a goal to pay off $1000 every month to be debt free. With this goal in mind, you still have to come up with short and long term milestones along the way and take into consideration that obstacles are likely to occur within that one year plan.

So, imagine you get an unexpected medical bill of $3000 that you have to pay off which adds to your increasing debt total.

When you hold this bill in your hands, it feels like you failed. It’s a huge setback that you couldn’t have planned for. Your mind will start exaggerating and making this worse than it is. You might even say to yourself: “How can I still pay off my debt within (12) months when more debt keeps accruing?”

This is where utilizing the three pillars of empiricism gives you the time to be honest with yourself (transparency), evaluate your plan and monthly goals (inspection), and come up with a way to keep on track to staying within the 12 month plan or expanding the end date of your goal (adaptation).

Transparency comes with calling the doctors office, speaking with the payment team to set up a plan to pay your bill off in increments. It gives you an awareness to know there is more than one way to pay this bill off. Once you determine how to deal with the roadblock of the unexpected bill, then you can decide if you want to pay off more money each month to your existing debt to pay everything off sooner, or add more time to your overall plan. This takes time to “inspect” and evaluate your current financial situation to find a path forward. This is just one example, and can be applied to any goal/plan that you set for yourself.

Either way, it’s not a failure; but it sure as hell might feel like one in that moment. When you inspect how to adjust your short and long term goals, and adapt your plan to fit your lifestyle, this helps you stay more aligned and centered and not let your mind spiral out of control thinking that you’re failing at your goal. It gives us the opportunity to make changes to our short and long term goals and keep on the path to success no matter what battles we have to endure along the way.

Like Marcus Aurelius once wrote in his Meditations:

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
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