Every Failure is an Opportunity

Each failure clarifies the path toward our ideal by exposing the gaps in our current abilities. In my journey from inpatient therapy to private practice, each stumble illuminated the skills and understanding I needed to develop. Thus, perceived failures aren't wasted efforts but opportunities to refine our goals and methods, leading to meaningful progress and self-discovery.

A while back, Fredrich Nietzche said “shortcomings are the lens through which we view the ideal.” I think this statement has profound implications that have the potential to cause a revelatory shift in our relationship with perceived failure. While important, I think the concept of the ideal itself, falls outside the scope of this discussion. Conversely, the analysis of shortcomings (perceived failures) as they relate to the clarification of the ideal is scalable to our daily struggles and more achievable goals.

We all tend to want things: to get a better job, be more social, improve our relationships, find meaningful hobbies, learn how to date, earn a degree, or just find the peace of mind that allows us to enjoy the present. If motivated enough, we pursue those things. Along the way, we struggle. We stumble. We reassess our plan and move forward, or perhaps decide that the goal isn’t worth the cost and give up. What we may think of as wasted energy though, is full of opportunity, direction, and clarity.

Each of us is moving from Point A to Point B at all times, whether we recognize it or not. We get older, stronger, weaker, happier, more bitter, more social, or isolated. We find success, and an inevitable lack thereof. When purposeful in our pursuits, we sometimes find that the energy and effort afforded to moving between the two points has left us stuck somewhere in the middle, and then subsequently feel as though we’ve slid back to Point A, or worse.

To meaningfully direct our trajectory, a relative amount of clarity regarding the variables is required. As life is a complex experience, Point B (the goal) can be vague. We don’t necessarily know what it looks like because we’ve never been there. Mostly, we take aim at a general goal, based on perceived value, and start working toward it. What we do in response to coming up short in our efforts, is what matters.

After graduating from a master’s program in 2016, I worked as a therapist in an inpatient substance abuse treatment. When Covid happened, I found myself unexpectedly entering private practice and began learning that the transition from working with patients short-term to long-term required a significant shift in perspective and approach. I was reasonably equipped to fill my role but felt as though something was missing that I was struggling to identify. I set a goal of being a better therapist, but lacked clarity regarding the specific strengths, competencies, and skill sets the person I was trying to emulate would have. I could see Point B, but not clearly enough to set a straight path forward.

At that time, I believed the issue was directly related to a misunderstanding of the difference between short-term and long-term patient relationships. Consequently, I began focusing my efforts in expanding my experience, education, and understanding in that regard. I started reading, listening more, asking more questions, providing less unsolicited insight, and began paraphrasing what I was hearing more often. As I saw progress, a clearer image of Point B emerged, but something was still missing.

With time, effort, and some struggle, I recognized that I had made progress toward my goal. What I also saw was that my original conception of Point B had been inaccurate. The therapist I’d imagined being wasn’t quite who I thought he was; and neither was I. Simply stated: there was more distance between us than I’d first imagined. Each time I stumbled, another characteristic of the therapist I was trying to become was revealed to me. What I eventually discovered about that person, relative to myself, was that they had improved focus, education, and a better understanding of long-term patient relationships, among other things.

Each time I identified a point of failure and analyzed it, a couple things happened. First, the visibility to Point B improved just a little. Second, I was provided with data surrounding deficits in my current strengths and competencies, relative to my chosen pursuit. These acted as opportunities, in that they allowed me to straighten my path and more meaningfully direct my efforts.

I’m still pursuing the ideal therapist today. It’s a considerable investment and (potentially) a lifelong commitment. As such, we need to know what we’ve chosen to orient ourselves toward, and what the related costs of doing so are. The parent whose goal is overwhelming professional success as a means to provide for their children, may discover that the energy expenditure necessary to achieve their desired results requires the sacrifice of what they would consider a meaningful family life, and then decide on a reappraisal of their chosen priorities. The adult, attempting to mend their strained relationship with an aging parent sees themselves through the other’s eyes and discovers the sacrifice of years of resentment necessary for reconciliation.

Pay attention to your failures. If attentive, you’ll find yourself presented with the opportunity to ask a simple question: “In what ways am I not the person I’d like to be?” Through your perceived failures, you’ll have the ability to compile a physical list: a series of character traits and skills that can be individually improved in pursuit of a chosen goal. Perhaps more important is this: Be careful what you wish for. There’s a second set of questions that offer freedom from the bonds of perfection that we place on ourselves, and from unnecessary pain: “Is Point B what I thought it was?” and “Is this really what I want?”

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