Focused on Failure… And Why That’s a Good Thing

Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica

Failure is a funny sort of topic to write about, quite frankly.  I mean… just look at the word.  Failure.  There’s simply nothing attractive about it.  It doesn’t feel good to say and God only knows it never brings with it a single glimmering positive connotation of any kind, shape or sort.  It just sits there looking at you with this smug smirk of self-satisfaction because it knows you and it are not strangers to each other’s company.  Oh no… we are all humans and it’s essentially hardwired into our genetic code to face many failures in our lives.  Wait, if you are reading this you ARE human, right?  Not some freaky-deaky Cylon?  See, this is what I get for watching several seasons worth of Battlestar Galactica during my Christmas holiday break… I mean, unless you look like Tricia Helfer as a Cylon.  Then we’re square.

But failure is something I’ve written about once or twice before on this very blog, mostly because despite all of the negativity associated with it, it’s really a pretty fascinating topic to me… whether it’s why we fail, how we fight against failure and, most importantly to me, how we respond to our own failures.

I am confident that part of my focus on failure is based on a book my Mom gave me several years back when I was going through a very rough patch in my own life.  The book is by John C. Maxwell and it’s entitled “Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones For Success” and it really shifted my thinking on how I view my own shortcomings, mistakes and failures.  I’m not going to claim victory over failure forever and that I can walk away from my failures as if they never ever occurred… but I am getting a lot better at handling my mistakes for sure.

I bought the book again recently for my Kindle since I couldn’t find the original hardcover… I have to believe I lent it to someone at one point or another.  Several passages within it struck chords with me all over again and I wanted to share a few of them.

First:

When achievers fail, they see it as a momentary event, not a lifelong epidemic.

Second:

Tell yourself, “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something.” There’s a big difference.

In all honesty, it was difficult to narrow it down to 2 quotes from the book because I highlighted quite a few more than that.  However, I think these 2 are timely and serve a bit of a key message as 2010 comes to an end and people begin to think with hope (hopefully!) about what lies ahead in 2011.  And these two quotes link up with each other so beautifully to create a singular point on failure that bears a little time noodling over.  So be prepared to noodle, my friends… seriously, prepare yourself.  Get a comfy chair, a cup of green tea and a little Tchaikovsky or something.

The first point is about how failure is just that’s fleeting… if you approach it that way.  It’s a singular event and a moment in time – it’s not the blueprint for how the rest of your life will unfold.  Hell, it’s not even the blueprint for how the activity you failed at will always unfold… provided that’s how you look at it.  Therein lies the challenge, no doubt… to isolate the moment as just a moment, give it thought and move on.

The second point gets to how whatever the failure was… it was an event… it was not you.  But we all tend to view it that way at some point in our lives, don’t we?  “I’m such a failure!”  Ugh… just typing those words made my fingers feel dirty and in need of a hard scrubbing.  Bleah.  We personalize how we act as being an encompassing part of who we are… and isn’t that completely insane?  Especially since we rarely tend to do that with a success, but damn… we will latch onto a failure like a drowning man clutching a life vest.

And that’s where these 2 points converge into a single notion… that while you will fail many times in your life, those failures are events unto themselves and are not YOU.  If your failures truly do define you in any way, I would argue that they only do so by showing you were the kind of person willing to take daring enough actions that would risk failure in the first place.  If you never fail… well, good Lord… did you ever really try in the first place?

That’s why I focus on failure… because if I am never missing, then maybe my targets are no better than a timid goal set without ambition, daring, verve or even imagination… and I don’t know about you, but that sound like a horribly boring way to shuffle through life.

So while I may not be a riverboat gambler when it comes to risk, I will seek to push myself and risk a few scraped knees along the way.  It will give me something to talk about later.

Lessons Learned: My First Strongman Competition

When I first began lifting weights, probably during my freshman year of college, it was really about aesthetics.  Unless I completely miss my guess, I think I was getting out of high school at around 145 lb. or so at my robust 5 feet 7 inches of dominating height.  The rather small weight area at Fairfield U. was not glamorous, but it seemed liked it would get the job done for my purposes.  I never had a plan or a clue back then and I’m wholly surprised I never did anything to damage myself permanently.

In the ensuing years, I became a little more knowledgeable, put on a few respectable pounds (currently up over 50 lbs. from my high school weight), read up on the subject more and began to create a semblance of a philosophy when it came to my own physical strength and conditioning.  In fact, I truly believe… wait, scratch that… know that my best days are ahead of me in my lifting career.

The most interesting development of all is less about my physical state and more about my mental state for training.  I tend to think of my physical training a lot more as it relates to my mind and spirit (and vice versa) than I ever have before.  Lifting is not simply a physical act for me – it’s testing myself against my own preconceived ideas of what is possible… it’s seeing if something I once thought as out of reach (a weight, a kind of lift, a time sprinting up a hill) is really something continuously on the horizon or right at my feet, ready to be conquered.

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Don’t get me wrong – I don’t stroll down the stairs into my home gym, put on Yanni and lift as if I were some kind of mild-mannered poet.  Hardly.  The philosophy is more for the time outside of the gym and is used to then drive the motivation inside of it.  So when I walk in, I’m looking to bring intensity to each lift and attack whatever the exercise is with abandon.

Where am I going with all of this?  Well, as the title of this post suggests, I did my first strongman competition a few weeks back.  For those not familiar with strongman events, they are similar to those Met-RX World’s Strongest Man competitions you see on ESPN… except that’s the elite level of the sport with weights and events far beyond what I was experiencing December 5th up in Paxton, MA.

The event was Paxton Strongman 6 and was comprised of 5 different events:

  • log press (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • tire deadlift (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • front hold (holding a weight out at arm’s length for as long as possible)
  • farmer’s walks (walking 40 feet with some serious weight on long handles, turning, and walking back 40 feet)
  • barrel and sandbag medley (carrying a barrel/keg a distance, running back, carrying a sandbag the same distance, running back and carrying the final sandbag to the finish)

I compete in the lightweight novice class which was for guys who have either never done a strongman competition or have only one done maybe one before.  The funniest part is that for novices, they want to include as many people as possible so the weights used are lighter than “open” competitors and the size of the weight class is much broader… 230 lb. and under.  I have no idea where else in the world 229 lb. is lightweight, but hey, there ya have it.

I finished in 9th place out of 12 competitors, which I guess is OK for my first ever competition… but in the end?  It’s not as much about placing as what I learned from it all and how it’s generally applicable to a lot of every day situations.  So here are my lessons learned from my first strongman competition:

You will be humbled. Embrace it.

The picture above was from the first event of the day – the log press.  The weight is 170 lb. and must be cleaned up off 2 tires and then pressed overhead to a lockout position as many times as possible in 1 minute.  I got 4 or 5 and the winner got around 11.  When I was prepping for this event, I was closer to around 8 or so reps on this lift… but a funny thing happened on the way to this event for me.  I was the last possible person lifting for this event out of everyone competing.  See, they run all the weight classes side-by-side on these events so that 4 or 5 people go for the same minute within their class… but my class was last and I was the clean-up person in my class.

Technically, that’s an advantage because I know exactly how much reps I need to come in first place… but there is a wee bit of a snag for me because I had to wait longer than anyone else and I had never done this kind of thing before.  To say I got anxious would be akin to saying a marathon is a brisk little jog to shake out the morning cobwebs.  I was convinced I was going to puke when I was setting up to start this event.  That’s not going to help anyone be focused on performance.

So what happened?  I performed poorly and it made catching up later in the competition harder than it should have been.  I saw guys who I am fairly certain I am better on this lift (and others) do better than me… and kudos to them for stepping up and performing well.

All of this taught me something important: when you get your ass kicked and do so in front of a whole bunch of people, accept it.  It doesn’t make you less of a person or a failure or a loser.  Being humbled like that is part of the fire that now drives me to do even better in my training because I want to do this again and really crush it.  I’m not sure I would be pushing myself quite like this if I finished with an overall solid performance – I might have felt a little too self-satisfied.

This was not failure, my friends… this was a lesson in where true motivation is born.

Nike said it best: just do it.

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When I first contemplated doing this contest, I was in touch with Matt Mills, owner/trainer of Lightning Fitness.  I decided to sign up to train over at Matt’s place in addition to the lifting I do in my beloved home gym, Fierce and Mighty (which you have hopefully found as well on Facebook at the Fierce and Mighty page).  Matt has done a few strongman competitions, winning a few along the way as welling as setting a national record for the log press (210 lbs for 15 reps in 1 minute… that’s absolutely sick).  I hemmed and I hawed about doing a competition that was less than 2 months away and kept saying I wanted to be more prepared before I placed myself into the white-hot crucible of competition.

Matt relayed to me the same advice he had gotten before his first powerlifting competition: if you are thinking about competing, sign up and compete.  It won’t be about where you place, but about what you learn when you compete (as this entire blog post is about).

And beyond that, there are few things that will focus your attention like an impending goal with a lot of public attention.  All of my friends and family knew I was doing this and quite a few of them showed up to cheer me on.  I really didn’t want to let them down and I think that, despite my own lack of satisfaction on my overall placing, it really made me push harder.

For people not interested in carrying around 170 lb. sandbags or deadlifting 370 lb. for 1 minute straight (which I hit for 19 reps, thank you very much!), you can use this same tool as well.  Going on a diet?  Book a trip to someplace warm where you want to wear a bathing suit.  This can hone the focus of many, many people.  Even beyond that, make public whatever your goal may be so your friends and family know what it is.  That alone will make it far more challenging to give up on.

But regardless of what it is, do something to get yourself moving and started.  Rare is the time in life when inaction is better than action, so take steps… however small… and get yourself going.  Small steps make momentum and progress until you find yourself pleasantly surprised to look up and find yourself in a better place than where you began.

Press on, press on, press on…

I’m not normally one to quote the Bible, but there is always one passage that’s stuck with me (partially because one of my best friends from high school picked it as his senior quote).  It’s Ecclesiastes 9:11 and it reads, in part

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…

There were some very strong guys and gals competing that day in Paxton.  None of them were are gloriously handsome as me, but I’m used to that… happens everywhere I go.  Umm… wait, where was I?  Oh yes… the competitors.  But you know where I think a lot of people separated themselves from their competition?  By how willing they were to push themselves just a little bit harder than everyone else.

For instance… when you are doing one of these events where you need to lift something for a minute straight, you feel like death by the end.  No one walks away from that feeling fresh as a daisy – it’s hard as hell.  But in the course of that minute, your mind begins to rebel a bit and wants to tell your body “Hey!  HEY!  Meat sack!  This is your brilliant intellect up here!  What in the name of all that’s holy are your DOING?!?!?  This HURTS!  STOP!”

The people who come out on top of these events are either able to make that inner voice quieter or push past it entirely.  See, even if you keep lifting until they call time, if you give into that voice just a little, you might lose a few reps… and that might mean the difference between 1st and 8th.

You want to win?  Step up to whatever your challenge is and never, ever, EVER lose sight of what you are looking to achieve.  Keep saying it to yourself over and over.  When you practice and prepare, say it over and over.  Make it such a habit because when it’s game time and you feel nervous and everyone is watching… it will pay off.  I wish I did more of this because I know I would have placed (and I kid you not) at least 3 or 4 spots higher than I did.

The longest of any of these events was a minute.  That’s it.  One, single, solitary minute.  Your challenge may not be a minute, but for 99.99999% of the population… your challenge will NOT last forever.  Press on.

So, those are the big 3 takeaways I had from all of this: (1) Embrace being humbled; (2) Action is always better than inaction; and (3) Every hard situation you will ever face will pass.  Be courageous until it does.

And if there is a lesson #4 in all of this, it would be that blogging is good for the soul and I probably shouldn’t wait 4 months between posts.  Press on.